Climbing Changabang.

Article 14 (Carlos Buhlar)
22. Climbing Changabang.

Approaching Changabang (left).

Article 14 (Carlos Buhlar)
23. Approaching Changabang (left).

IN THE SPRING OF 1981, I received a letter from Dane Burns. It contained a packet of xeroxed photos from different magazines and journals showing the many faces of one of the most alluring and beautiful mountains I'd ever seen. The mountain was called Changabang. Lines and arrows pointed out both established routes and new possibilities up the most exciting and wild terrain I had ever seen. Scribbled in at the bottom of the photo of Changabang's southest face were Dane's emphatic thoughts.

'What do you think of the line between the two arrows? Pretty wild climbing, huh? I'll sell my car, sell the house, whatever we have to do...But, let's go!'

I don't remember exactly when I heard the name Changabang for the first time. It was sometime after the first ascent, which took place in 1974, and well before I knew how to launch an expedition to the Himalaya. Christian Bonnington led the assault with his characteristic entourage of Britain's most accomplished mountaineers. I scrambled for a map to see where in the Himalaya he had decided to pick off yet another plumb of a first ascent. By the time Dane wrote me, Changabang was embedded in my consciousness. Like a cruel joke, the very next year, the Indian government decided to close down all climbing on peaks within the Nanda Devi Sanctuary. Changabang was now closed to climbers indefinitely. It would stay off limits for the next fifteen years.

In 1996, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation made a partial concession to the Sanctuary closure. The peaks whose faces fell to the outside of the line demarcating the Sanctuary boundary, would be reopened for climbing. The boundary ran directly over the summit of Changabang. But who had been there? As far as I was concerned, the north flanks of Kalanka and Changabang were complete unknowns. Then, in the summer of 1996, Julie-Anne Clyma and her husband, Roger Payne (director of the BMC), came home after leading an attempt on the huge and impressive north face of Changabang. They were always one step ahead when it came to knowing what was out there. Unfortunately, they had atrocious weather. Even so, they climbed the steep, iced-up slabs and corners of the huge buttress which protrudes from the left side of the face. But more importantly, they came back with amazing stories and stunning photographs.

Colour plates 22-23
Photos 29 to 32

Having just climbed K2's north ridge with a very strong Russian team, I was tempted to explore the smaller, and less known mountains of Asia the next year. But the reality for my Russian friends was that only a known 8000er could attract the sponsorship dollars in Russia that would make an expedition possible for them in 1997. Though I mentioned Changabang to them, among other objectives, the choice became the Diamir flank of Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan. We agreed on this objective in September of 1996, just after our ascent of K2.

Nevertheless, when I returned from China to Pakistan in order to catch my flight to London, I ran into Steve Sustad and Simon Yates in Islamabad. Steve spoke to me then about the north face of Changabang. He was part of a team that would be going back with Roger and Julie-Anne to attempt the face again in 1997. There just might be an extra place on the team! I was supremely interested.

Though I kept the hope up as long as I could, eventually a team of six British climbers was formed and there would be no place for me.

After our success on Nanga Parbat, the Russians were ready to gamble for sponsorship. Knowing that new routes were waiting on many smaller peaks, their curiosity was ripe for original ideas. When I brought up Changabang again, they were ready to try raising money for it. We wanted something out of the ordinary, something new, and something technical. Beneath the north face of Rakaposhi, in the village of Hussainabad (the home of our Pakistani cook, Ali Madat), our decision was settled. We would attempt to climb this northern flank of Changabang. I still knew very little about it. I had yet to see a photograph.

On my way home from Nanga Parbat in 1997, I stopped and phoned Steve Sustad while I overnighted in London. While dropping a small fortune in change into a public telephone at my B&B, in 30 minutes I heard about their epic first ascent and tragedy on the North Face. I was moved as I listened to Steve recount the climb. It was a remarkable story. When he was done, I asked him whether there were possible lines to the right of their route. "Yes, most definitely, but they will be full-on big wall climbs." He warned me that they would require the whole gamut of big wall artillery. When I put down the telephone (for lack of more money to continue the conversation), I was sobered but intrigued. Big wall it would be.

Our team consisted of five individuals : four Russians and one American. Perhaps the most amazing thing about the climb was the fact that we ended the expedition as better friends than when we had begun. Along the way, however, there arose enough disputes, stemming from cultural gaps and differences in climbing philosophy, to fill a small book. Though the mountain was challenging, our most difficult task revolved around coming to grips with the differences in strategy developed by two separate ideologies over the past 50 years. As one might imagine, the one American was at a disadvantage when it came to convincing the four Russians that Yosemite methods were best. In hindsight, this uneven distribution was probably a good thing. Had it been a more balanced team, we might never have been able to find a compromise.

As leader of the expedition, after dreaming up the objective, my chief role was to get as much of the bureaucratic red tape out of the way and manoeuvre the team, in one organized heap, to the foot of the mountain. At that point, I had to stand back and allow my seasoned teammates to perform in their own familiar ways. It eventually became clear that it was going to be easier for me to adopt the Russian style of ascending big walls than it would be for the four of them to adapt to Yosemite methods I had grown up with.

Ultimately, we employed a capsule style that offered the protection and safety of consecutive camps on the wall, installed in one continuous push. With eight 50 meter lengths of static rope, three 60 meter lead ropes and two 55 meter 7 mm lines to leave on the long traverses, we were neither going very heavy, nor very light.

The five hour, ten kilometre approach to the foot of the face from base camp quickly convinced us to hire a couple of Indian porters, Govinda and Nanda Sing. This made especially good sense considering the fact that BC was still hidden beneath 1 m of winter snow. The terrain above was even more deeply covered. The job of ferrying enough rations and gear for 25 days to the base of the wall was enormous. But it paled in comparison to lugging it up the wall itself. Unfortunately, we couldn't employ any enthusiastic Indian porters for that job. As a matter of fact, I have no idea how the Indian men we hired even perceived our plan. Upon laying their loads down at two tents a half mile from the 1600 m sheer granite wall, they could gaze up at the golden coloured granite, ribboned by vertical streaks of blue ice. In disbelief, they must have thought we were completely out of our minds. With the sun only bathing the wall with about four or five hours of light (and thus, warmth) in the afternoon, the thought of operating up there in the cold gave us pause. I think we were in denial. Even we could not fully gauge just how cold it would be on the upper half of the face. We could only would be very cold.

On 6 May, a severe storm moved into the area. Our reconnoitring and initial fixing of the lower ice pitches came to a halt. Sitting out the storm at our advanced camp was not relaxing. We knew that huge avalanches pored off the Bagini Col. Would they threaten us with their enormous runouts? In our blindness from the clouds and darkness, I could occasionally hear the muffled running of the avalanches. How close were they coming? Unwilling to dig out our gear and relocate our tents in the storm's eye, we tried to shut our minds out to the possibility we might be covered. We could only cajole ourselves into believing that during the good weather, the wall seemed to pose no threat at all. How differently things felt when 40 inches of new snow had fallen! I was kicking myself for not insisting that we put our two tents much farther from the headwall.

By 8 May, we realised nothing could be gained by waiting at the foot of the face for conditions to stabilise. In the evening, the skies cleared. It was going to take several days before things settled down. With no desire to descend the next morning in the heat of the sun, we left ABC at about 8:00 p.m. It was now clear and cold, with bright moonlight. Over forty inches of snow had accumulated. Our upright grade seven haul bags were completely hidden by fresh powder. What normally took us 2-1/2 hours to descend cost us 8 hours in deep snow. It was an exhausting night. Bad weather returned for another day on the ninth. About the same time, I became sick with bronchitis. On the tenth it cleared again, and the snow started to settle.

On 12 May, the four Russians went back up to ABC. On the mountain, they began doing the grunt work of digging out the gear stashed in the bergshrund and fixing the next six pitches. The equipment in the shrund was under 2 meters of snow. Meanwhile, I was frustrated in BC nursing my bronchitis. On 15 May, I returned to the base of the wall with Govinda and Nanda Sing.

Although our original plans had centred around only four people on the wall, it felt unthinkable to expect that one of us not begin the climb. Volkov and Dusharin had invited Mariev to participate on the expedition on the understanding that he might not have a place in the actual climb. But having been together on K2 and Nanga Parbat, however, the four of us were well acquainted. Pasha Shabaline was the invited 'outsider' from the city of Kirov. Yet his big wall experience eclipsed that of the rest of us. Unlike the four of us, big walls were his focus in climbing.

When the Russians agreed to sleep 3 people in one of the portaledges, the decision was made. Pasha explained that it would be no different than what they were familiar with at home in their tiny apartments. Besides, he explained, in a portaledge this size, he had slept as many as 5 people, with heads all towards the wall and legs extending outwards! Who could argue with that?

Our first big day on the face consisted of hauling and dragging all our personal gear and food up the ten fixed pitches to our first hanging bivouac. We brought all the fixed lines up behind us and marginally established our first hanging camp by night fall. For me, it was one of the three or four most exhausting days of the climb.

The next day, Pasha and Andrei went out in front. Ivan, Andrei M. and I began organising hundreds of kilos of gear, fuel, and food. We separated items into bags of what we would need over the next five or six days and what we could haul up the ropes, as they were fixed, for the future. Water was melted; meals were prepared; ropes untangled, dried and coiled; single 3/8" bolt belay anchors were drilled and backed up. It felt like a construction project to me. Judging by the amount of flammable liquid we carried, I figured we had enough fuel for a month. Then I realised we were drinking it, not burning it! Ah, but I was getting used to these differences.

We worked like this over the next ten days. The two long days (the 19th and 24) of moving our camps were the worst of all. On those days we adopted the practice of carrying a 15 kg. rucksack on our back and clipping a 20-25 kg. haul bag, by a long sling, to the leg loops of our harness. In this way, so the idea went, we would only have to elevate the remaining four 35 kg. haul bags using the standard pulley system. Well, yes. But it didn't make ascending ropes much fun. Especially those thin, fraying, 9 mm fixed ropes! With my face pressed into the cold granite, I recall trying to think about obscure objects back home to take my mind off the pain. Specifically, I remembered an outlandish antique I had recently hung on my office wall: a rather realistic, hand carved, wooden figure of Christ- bleeding and nailed to a cross. I wonder if there was some kind of unconscious connection.

The climbing, and descending by the same route, over those sixteen days on the wall became one long psychological, endurance effort. I was sure from the outset that my team was a talented group of individuals. But could we play music together. That was the question before we began. In a nutshell, it was a very rough road. As one might expect, there were numerous differences with my way of thinking. At times, because of the strength of the four Russian minds working in unison, I felt as though I had lost touch with my own ideals. I had to remind myself that this was the team I had chosen!

Though Changabang had been on my mind for two decades, once I brought these men into the picture, I knew the project was no longer my own. It belonged to a larger set of minds. I had to let go of many preconceived ideas I had of how attaining the summit would be achieved. Most of all, I had to let go of my ego. Only then could I 'lead' the project and continue to contribute significantly to the attainment of our goal.

My role as leader shifted. I had to bring together the ideas of all five of us and coalesce them into a workable plan. Though I was still 'captain' of the ship, that role became very different in light of the forces that turned my original vision into a strategy all five members could live with.

In balance, I am more of a process person; and my team became a very product oriented work force. Whereas Americans believe in rotating the jobs of climbing a big wall on a mountain rather evenly throughout the effort, the Russians think that each person should take a fixed position, or task, and stay with it for a long stretch of the climb.

I attempted to persuade the group to rotate the many responsibilities of the climb evenly between us. I was not as worried about attaining the summit as I was about coming away from the climb with a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment. However, the Russians took a different view. They knew that the enjoyment and personal satisfaction from climbing could be had in their home mountains, those closer to Russia and much less costly. On Changabang they felt they had a job to do. It was their belief that addressing the task at hand, (i.e. establishing a direct new route on Changabang's north face) took precedence over any personal goals they might have had before coming on the expedition. In the end, I was unable to convince them of my viewpoint.

What kept me going? Staying very focused on my mental map- why we were there and where we were going. I knew that by encouraging myself and my teammates, to maintain an open dialogue, we could solve the 'how we would get there'. Throughout my internal struggle with the differences in strategy, I had to remind myself that at the core of it, I had chosen excellent people. The Russian 'collective' style of climbing clashed with the western style of self discovery, which they interpreted as individualism. Though we both believed in the concept to teamwork, we drew different conclusions on how best to obtain it. I knew, deep down, that whatever actions they proposed, they were not out to derail the undertaking. They were simply mapping out their tactics in the way they believed was most efficient. Though I disagreed with their balance of product vs. process, I had to communicate my appreciation to the team for its total commitment to the project. And let them know that I valued their skills as alpinists. I continually had to remind myself to ease up on my need for control and allow these people to 'create' in their own way.

I would have left the expedition if I could not have released the grip I had on my original vision. I found comfort in the knowledge that the team appreciated my situation. My rational course of action was to adjust my outlook and allow these people to perform using the methods they were most efficient with. And then I had to support that decision in every way I could.

Our product was enlightening. After 21 days of working and living on the mile high face of ice and granite, we established one of the most ambitious and difficult routes in the Himalaya. My reward was the honour to have worked alongside such a talented group of individuals.


The ascent of Changabang (6864 m) by American-Russian team. They climbed a direct line on the north face, in June 1998.


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