The Mazeno Ridge of Nanga Parbat

Sandy Allan

We are running on empty, it is 6.12 p.m, Pakistan time, 15 July 2012. Late in the day for Rick and I to be at 8126 m on the summit of Nanga Parbat but that’s how it is! I am feeling done in and delighted having come all the way along the Mazeno ridge. I’ve been here before with Rick on the 10 July 2009 at around 4.30 p.m. crawling in wild wind thinking - I am not going to be able to see beyond the summit to study a line up from the Mazeno side! On that occasion we had climbed the Diamir face via the Kinshofer and were checking things out as I was quite certain that if we ever did ascend the Mazeno, then a fast descent would be vital.

We had tried the Mazeno previously, with Doug Scott and other very close friends back in 1995. Incredulously the ridge kept calling me, so to fortify my future self-confidence I felt it vital to understand the route down if my nonsensical yearning to climb the Mazeno ridge endured. It was clear on the summit with blue skies but we had been wandering about the crenellated ridge above 8000 m since 2.00 p.m. harvesting each small summit. The mist eventually cleared in the late afternoon and in good visibility we climbed up again. I was all but ready to give up but our years of trust and loyalty to each other provided the spark for Rick to push on in front, one more time, to a high point almost next to where we were at 2.00 p.m. A peg, a short piece of aluminum and a length of wire, marks the summit.

Profile of the Mazeno ridge. (Doug Scott)

Profile of the Mazeno ridge. (Doug Scott)

Situated in the Astore district of Gilgit, Baltistan, northern area of Pakistan, Nanga Parbat is the ninth highest mountain in the world. It’s the western most eight thousander and in 1895 Albert F Mummery and his two Gorkha companions reached 7000 m on the Diamir face. Mummery eventually died reconnoitering the Rakhiot face. In was on 3 July 1953 that Hermann Buhl soloed to the summit on an expedition organised by Karl Herrligkoffer. In Urdu, Nanga Parbat translates to Naked Mountain.

Fellow mountain guides Steve House and Vince Anderson made an inspirational ascent of the central pillar of the Rupal face which reassured me that, if like me you realise that the third rock from the sun is a miracle. Humans are lucky, thoughtful, and opportunities if you get yourself ready and choose to accept them, can become possible! Descending from the summit our footsteps are all but obscured with drifting snow, darkness surrounds us but Cairngorm experience leads me direct to the cave. Rick cannot get our reaming lighter to spark, we have almost a half cylinder of butane/propane gas on the Sumo stove....almost extravagant and certainly useless, and fortunately sleep comes easily.

The Mazeno ridge, 10 to 13 km in length, it simply depends where you measure the beginning of it from, I can assure you its long with at least four significant 7000 m peaks along the way, inescapable, and then a considerable distance remains to reach the 8000 m plus summit. Doug Chabot and Steve Swenson made the first traverse of the ridge between 12 and 18 August 2004; they had been acclimatising for ages before making their attempt on the ridge, but the effort left them weak and ill. They descended by the Schell route and graded the Mazeno VI M4 A13. A two man German team also traversed the ridge, but there is little written up about it.

View of Mazeno ridge depicting movements of the climbers during the attempt.

View of Mazeno ridge depicting movements of the climbers during the attempt.

I knew it would not be easy and many mountaineers including myself had hit their heads off this proverbial brick wall. My pal Voytec Kurtyka and the late Erhard Loretan tried and again, gained no new ground so for me, duplication was pointless.

I have often climbed in Nepal when guiding and have climbed with some outstanding Sherpas and for so long now - I have been telling them that I had a great route for them. They climb well and Zarok is one of the best ice climbing Sherpas I have ever seen. I asked them to come along to climb with me and my friend Rick. As is normal for me, cash was in short supply and we needed a bit more money. I decided to ask Cathy O’Dowd along, who lacked confidence about climbing the whole ridge so we decided to take another Sherpa to climb with her as she fully expected to turn back quite early but wanted to see the place. Cathy raised lots of funds, was responsible for making us a web site, managed it and generally was the communicator of our expedition. As it turned out she surpassed her own climbing expectations (which I knew she would) but eventually Cathy and the three Lhakpas, Rangdu, Zarok and Nuru descended after traversing the whole Mazeno and taking part in one aborted summit attempt. Rick and I would not have been in such a position if it was not for their outstanding efforts but like all of us they too were exhausted. Their descent of the Schell route sounded horrible.

It was a tough call for me deciding to take my Nepalese pals rather than western climbers as I had fellow mountain guides who are close friends who showed a modicum of interest in my project but at the end of the day while outstanding climbers, I had only known them in Alpine surroundings, we had not experienced enough together, so I decided it was not worth the risk of inviting them.

Day 1: We embarked on the ‘big push’ having spent one night at 6400 m in our acclimatisation phase. Weather reports informed us that we would be climbing into storm conditions about a week away, but we also knew that we were never going to get a weather window long enough for this climb. Our sacks were heavy, eight days food that can stretch to ten maybe. So off we went

Day 3: On the morning of 4 July we finally stand high on the ridge for the first time; we have good views down the other side to the Diamir glacier 2500 m below us. We can see the tents of other teams tackling the Kinshofer route. In my mind I wish them success, hoping they’ll climb high on the Kinshofer. But it transpired that they reached Camp 2 and then went home.

The ridge lies around 7000 m with separate summits. The high points and dips of snow merge, at times is difficult to judge where exactly we are and how far we have to go. It is cold, the Lhakpas and Rick wear their down suits all the time. I dress in power stretch and a fleece top with very light Gore-Tex pants and wear my down parka constantly! Sugary deep unconsolidated snow and afternoon mist makes slow progress and when views come, it seems a ridiculous distance along the ridge, the summit of Nanga Parbat is on the very far horizon. It taunts and frustrates my team who are now probably thinking their leader is a dreamer and potentially insane!

  We are moving alpine style, breaking camp each morning, breaking trail while carrying big sacks, roped into teams of two, everything with us. We have more muscle power and more supplies than either of the two teams that have traversed the entire ridge to the Mazeno Gap before, but even with the outstanding Nepalese we are moving slowly, semi- intentionally, trying to preserve energy in the unconsolidated snow as we know that we are here for the long haul.

Day 4: We are going along well, but Lhakpa Nuru in front has traversed under a rock outcrop and is trying to climb a steep snow gully to regain the winding knife-edge ridge when the sugar snow collapses under him and he falls some 40 m. We are all moving together in our teams of two. Zarok is almost in Nuru’s footsteps with lots of pooled loose rope... the sliding fall goes on until Zarok gets a grip and Nuru stops. With re-ascent difficult we climb down to him and try to traverse around the snow-and-rock buttresses finding an old accessory cord loop jammed in a crack. We continue on but nightfall catches us in a bad place!

We huddle under a rock overhang, the slope below steep enough that a dropped rucksack has a good chance of landing at the foot of the Diamir glacier! My determination to hack at rocks gets one tent precariously pitched. Rick digs out a natural coffin-shaped cave to share with Rangdu and Nuru and Zarok curl up half-sitting on an uneven rock ledge. It is a bad night that leads to a short day.

Rick and Sandy on the final pinnacle before the Mazeno Gap. (

Rick and Sandy on the final pinnacle before the Mazeno Gap. (

Day 5: We stagger on just as far as a col and bivi again to give everyone time to recover. The next day is our predicted storm day, but we can’t get a satellite signal, so have no idea of the updated forecast but what we see suggests high winds. Ahead lie twin peaks, featuring steep mixed ground, narrow exposed ridges and few camping places. We choose to stay where we are and sit out a storm that does not really come but it is windy and cold and it would be pushy to move!

Six days gone, two short but important ones means we are only about half-way along the easier half of the ridge.

Day 7: Remaining relentless: wind, deep snow, tricky mixed passages, one peak after another after another. The exposure superb: a traverse in the sky with terrain dropping steeply on either side spreading out into views of distant peaks. The ridge winds sinuously like a serpents back, decorated with curved cornices poised in frozen waves. We pass our ‘point of no return’, an awkward diagonal abseil to descend a rock wall. Should anything go wrong now retracing our steps would be barely possible, we’d be better to press on to the Mazeno Gap.

Day 8: We cross Mazeno peak, the highest point on the traverse and the ridge widens and then we stand at the start of the pinnacles, the last challenge between us and the main massif, an obstacle which we know to be the crux. From the Chabot and Swenson report we know it took them 13 hours. It looks so straightforward and I can sense Cathy and the Lhakpas already skipping ahead to summit day. Me, I hold so much respect for the American climbers that I expect continuing interest, a tough time and simply hope for the best.

Day 9: Hours accumulate, the pinnacles are endless, a crenellated twisting ridge dropping ever downwards, getting narrower and more convoluted as part of my team gets ever more exasperated with it. After eleven hours of climbing we reach the Mazeno Gap in the last blush of daylight. Only two other teams have ever got this far, none have gone further.

Day 10: Tired, but with a sense of achievement we sleep late and start late, fighting our way technically up to a high camp at 7200 m. This will do for a bid for the 8125 m summit, a tad far but we could make it! We know we are climbing into a high wind forecast but food is depleted, one big push to go and perhaps, just perhaps!

Day 11: Up at 11.00 p.m. of day 10, we leave at 01.00 a.m. on day 11, climbing in strong winds. I am tail end, Charley struggling with my goggles, Nuru in front. To Rick and Cathy’s disappointment I want to stick to the ridge seeking a technically cool new line to the summit. As day light expands our horizon we arrive spectacularly on top of a subsidiary peak with views across mountains to the far western horizon. Sadly this bump is nowhere near the true summit. We are traversing along the exquisite rocky ridgeline that runs between the Rupal and Diamir faces with awesome exposure. From our bump we are forced to down climb diagonally over treacherous mixed ground, sugar snow and loose rock. Nuru is demoralised and Cathy cold and exhausted.

By 07.00 a.m., Cathy and Nuru are at odds, have had enough and they turn back. Rangdu roped with Zarok and me with Rick, we move together on Scottish grade III/IV mixed ground, I lead wishing I had two tools but in my rush to get to Pakistan my best tools were in a store in Chamonix, so I was dependant on our Pakistani stash. Climbing steeply up rotten rock we then traverse deep snow to another rock wall where Rangdu and Zarok are coming back towards us demoralised and wanting to descend. There was a steep wall in front and we were already too late. I know Rick so well, without saying it we considered pushing on knowing that we could link a route up the final wall, the summit was still far behind though. The logic of descent was impeccable, no epic midnight summit for us then? I so regretted being so ignorant about this aspect of the mountain. As we descended a different way, there was half-hearted talk of another push to the summit but both Rick and I did wonder whether any of us have enough left in us. On the long traverse back to our high camp Lhakpa Zarok misses a footing and starts off down the slope, Rangdu tries to hold him but is catapulted off his feet and they cascade down the face in a rapid slide. From where Rick and I are standing, the angle appears to run out before dropping off steeply but I am beginning to think that they may not stop. Finally, after around 300 m they come to rest metres above the steeply dropping seracs of the Diamir face. They stand up, begin to move and slowly climb back up the face to re-join our traverse. After 18 hours of climbing in fading light we arrive back to our high camp re-joining Cathy and Nuru. There are almost no supplies left. The decision to descend the next day seems an obvious one and there is no need to labour our discussions, the Sherpas and Cathy make it clear they are going down.

Day 12: I wake up feeling so fine! I want to keep my options open. Zarok and Nuru are almost in a position to strike their bivi tents in preparation for their descent down the Schell route. I call through frosted tent fabric to Rick who shares my optimism!

Grace and acceptance fills my mind as I watch Cathy and the three amazing Lhakpas head down the Schell route on that misty enshrouded day. Déjà vu, did I really see this coming in my planning stage so many months ago? Their contribution has been immense. As expedition leader, my duty of care and accountability is tangible.

Later we learn that during their descent they actually miss the turning off the ridge to the east in the mist and find themselves abseiling down into the bowl to the west, down towards Rangdu breaking his ankle, and one of the Ev2 tent being avalanched upon.

After two days they walk out, climb into jeeps, and drive on into the night, heading for Chilas where in the hotel they wait for us!

We are left with the satellite phone with a three quarter full battery! The forecast is reasonable for four days out, the remaining food generously left for us is an almost full packet of digestive biscuits, a single serving of porridge, some boiled sweets and several gas cylinders. Once they are long gone I realise that I have not got a lighter and they have many, why had I not remembered to take one?

Day 13: The facts are: we are tired, have little food and we do not have it left in us to repeat the more direct line of the day before and push it on to the summit.

I am a bit disappointed but take the realistic option. We climb up and then try a rising traverse across to the summit pyramid and turn it on the left, a long traverse will join the Diamir face route somewhere above 7500 m. We had climbed that route in 2009 and should be able to find our way off on that side. The tent will be a burden so we leave that behind and just take sleeping bags. Impulsively we leave the mats behind as well as we think we can descend the normally fixed Kinshofer in a day.

Route marked up to Camp 2 on the Mazeno ridge.

Route marked up to Camp 2 on the Mazeno ridge.

Light snowfall, wind and tiny sloughs have been enough to erase the tracks on the face and we make slow work of the traverse. Rocky ribs finger down the face, demanding precise footwork with whatever natural protection we can find. We push on breaking trail in deep snow. We share leads on a steeper couloir and I haul myself over a hanging cornice hoping the debris miss Rick. Our minds are jelly now as the traverse leads us nearer, onto the Diamir side. Features recognised from our 2009 ascent become visible. It is 5.00 p.m. and the summit is still in the far distance. Finally, at around 7700 m we dig into a snow bank with our ice axes and move into the cave in the dark and eat our last biscuits.

Day 14: It is 15 July, 6.12 p.m., 17 years after our first attempt on the Mazeno ridge we stand on the summit. We left our snow cave early taking all our possessions with us and found the summit eventually. We then decided we may as well head back to our snow cave.

Day 15: Rick breaks trail at first but it is too slow, I take over for almost the entire day along a seemingly endless downward arc, mist comes in and I take a bearing towards but slightly above the traditional Diamir Camp 4. Rick is behaving out of character but his work yesterday justifies exhaustion and respect. No one has climbed Nanga Parbat in two seasons until our ascent and we can begin to see why. My concern makes me call our agent Ali to tell him we are descending the Diamir side and to send some valley clothes around for us with fast porters, I also enquire about our helicopter bond! Rick hears my words and realise I am concerned because of him! Impressing me, he revaluates his attitude and digging deep he gets his act together again. We carve out another snow cave in unpleasant weather. Rick’s energy is wasted as his side of the cave collapses and is useless. My excavations are a bit better and we squeeze ourselves partly in. We try to get a spark from the stove and lighter but it is useless.

Rick and Sandy on the upper part of the Mazeno ridge.

Rick and Sandy on the upper part of the Mazeno ridge.

Day 16: Again, no water, no food, we shake off the spindrift, rope up together and move, steeply down a slope, crusty in places. It is loaded and unstable. At a change of slope angle Rick triggers a semi- anticipated avalanche. He rolls as I hold the rope from my solid stance. The slope is perhaps slightly safer now but we know not to assume, but our options are few; to stay and deteriorate or to descend. We go down the avalanche track until we need to traverse off to the side. Below and to our left is the site of Camp 3. We uncover occasional anchors for fixed ropes and check them to abseil hard ice sections. The old ropes are hopelessly frozen in; our valuable time is consumed with 25 m abseil on our own doubled rope. At dusk in enveloping mist we arrive on a ridge above the site of Diamir Camp 2. Rick wants to go one way, I the other, my memory is correct but its best to stay and wait for visibility. Darkness comes but there is no snow bank here so we hack out soft snow revealing a glass ice ledge, tie ourselves to our one ice screw and begin a long vigil. Sitting on a few coils of rope each we climb into our bags! I wish Rick a good night as I pull the draw cords around me in my Mountain Equipment bag. I cannot help but notice that he has not done his vitally important sock change foot care routine for two or was it three nights now! Certainly, I realise that the risk of dropping a boot here would make things awkward, we are both weak, and I wonder, is he as exhausted and frozen as I think he is?

Day 17: The weather continues to hold fair as dawn breaks and we move down to the site of Kinshofer Camp 2. We urgently need to hydrate! Rick falls asleep in the sun; I peel off the last of my down layer changing into my underwear and try to use the sun to melt snow in my water bottle. I awake a slumbering Rick and encourage him to remove his down suit! He does so and we harness and rope up again, I ask Rick to go in front as I’m certain that I have the alertness to hold a fall if necessary! Just above the Kinshofer wall, someone is arranging a belay. We descend to greet Marek Holecek who is soon joined by Djenek Hruby, they are climbing here before trying their new line on the Rupal side. Rick is subdued and hardly speaks; I am smiling as I get the Sumo stove set up making signs asking for a light! His broken English is not helping but he understands my sign language. He takes off his sack, carefully clips it in and hand me a lighter and sugar sweets which I open with my teeth and give a handful to Rick. They share a flask of tea and Hruby speaks good English. My stove is efficient and soon we have lots of water, Rick coughs and splutters, throwing up the initial hasty drink but then settles and starts to communicate. Marek tells us to use any of their food and tents at Camp 1 and is wonderful to us. They climb on wishing to sleep for acclimatisation purposes at the site of Camp 2. They have made our descent more plausible; we launch onto the decaying tangle of fixed ropes on the Kinshofer using our fifty metre rope to abseil in 25 m portions. We continue down climbing roped together down the huge snow/ice couloir below. The bottom of the couloir seems further away than ever as we descend into the night, facing in, kicking front points into ice with semi-frozen toes. Rick keeps stopping and falling asleep. Respectful of our fragility I am glad to stop too and ease my foot pain. Mentally I count seconds into minutes to rest sufficiently, to encourage necessary movement but fearful that we may slip off. I know and trust Rick, he is exceptional but we are both so wasted! At 11.00 p.m. we stumble over avalanche debris and small crevasses until an illuminated tent appears on a ledge at the foot of the buttress. Three high altitude porters emerge and embrace us. Incredibly, Ali has mobilised them from their beds in Skardu to Camp 1 on Nanga Parbat in 48 hours. They moved continually through the night to be at the camp for us.

Day 18: Five in the morning we descend the glacier towards the Diamir base camp. En route our Sirdar arrives with the cook boy, presenting us with garlands of flowers; emotions bring wetness to my eyes as they pass them over my head and let them hang around my neck. An hour or so later we appreciate the hospitality, drinking tea as we sit on plastic chairs on nature’s carpet of wild flowers.

The next day we walk out on damaged feet, jeeps then take us to Chilas and our team is united.

First complete ascent of the Mazeno ridge of Nanga Parbat by Sandy Allan and Rick Allen in July 2012. This spectacular ascent was awarded the prestigious ‘Piolets d’Or’.

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