American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Ushba, One More Attempt

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  • Publication Year: 1931

Ushba, One More Attempt

Lawrence Coolidge

USHBA (15,409 ft.), double-barreled Matterhorn of the Caucasus, is one of its most challenging and coveted peaks. It has turned back many strong parties in the course of the last forty-three years, and has seldom been ascended. To make an attempt, therefore, would mean that one had much to gain, and with proper care very little to lose. With this realization in mind, Henry Hall, Jean Lozeron, the writer, and two native porters set out from Betsho on Monday, August 18th, 1930, to establish a high camp in the Gul glen.

The weather was doubtful on the morning of the 19th, but by 8 o’clock it had cleared. Lozeron, the writer, and one of the porters then set out with full climbing equipment and provisions for three days to reconnoiter and possibly to make the attempt. Unfortunately Hall was forced to remain in camp on account of illness. Had we had the benefit of his experience, our effort might have come nearer to success.

We knew at the time little of the history of climbing on the mountain, and local information as to routes was so variable as to prove completely worthless. For about an hour we proceeded up the rocks to the right (east) of the Gul glacier, gaining an altitude of some 700 ft. above the camp. At a point overlooking the glacier and immediately under the summit of Gulba we halted to make our decision. Three sizeable avalanches thundered down the couloir between the two peaks in the course of the next ten minutes, proving that this route was dangerous as well as difficult. It seemed possible to reach the southeast corner of the summit parapet on the south peak by the rocks of the southeast, or “Mazeri” ridge. Our glass revealed to us three or four fissures in the parapet, which might prove possible and lead Us to the easier slope just below the summit. Of the southwest ridge, we knew nothing beyond what our porter told us, which was that five Germans had tried that route last year and had failed.

As the weather was bright and clear, we decided to go ahead and bivouac as high up on the southeast ridge as possible. We accordingly descended onto the glacier, being careful to keep low enough to avoid the danger from avalanches. After crossing a few séracs, the going became easy. In about an hour we gained the east side of the rock wall at the foot of a couloir, which is marked by a snow mound of considerable size. This, I learned later, was well to the north of the couloir used by Schulze and Semenowski in their successful ascents.

Our porter, who had professed himself to be a hardy mountaineer and who certainly looked it, did well coming across the glacier, which was his first experience under a rope; but after we started up the rock he became visibly more and more nervous, and by noon he was so discouraged that he refused to go on. After careful illustrations in a snow patch to demonstrate that he should follow exactly in each footprint across the glacier, he was allowed to return alone. He left us, skipping down the mountain like a small boy, relieved of a very unpleasant task. We later ascertained from Hall that he followed our instructions to the letter, except that among the séracs he resorted to his hands and knees. All the same, it was a considerable feat for one obviously inexperienced in high mountain work. His pack we divided between the two of us, raising our loads to some thirty-five pounds.

Our route from the glacier lay up the couloir in a northeasterly direction. At the top of it, about 1,000 ft. above the glacier, we emerged on a ridge guarded by a series of formidable gendarmes. After a steep climb over the first of these, which took a full hour, we figured we were too far to the right (east). Accordingly we descended to the left, some 200 or 300 ft., across a patch of snow, and after traversing a series of rock shelves we found ourselves on the main southeast ridge. From this point on, climbing was easier, though it was up a gully covered with water, and the rocks sloped the wrong way. At 5 o’clock a good place to bivouac was found at about 13,500 ft. The night was comparatively comfortable. Avalanches of small rock swept continuously down a couloir beside the bivouac, but the only danger was from a possible deflection.

On account of slowly clearing clouds, our start in the morning was not made until 5 o’clock. Mounting on the side of a steep snow couloir (we did not take to the snow for fear of the falling rocks), we passed between two great gendarmes curved to the right and emerged on the crest of a steep snow-field overlooking the great sheet of bare ice under the summit wall on its south side. To cross this ice would have involved many hours of step cutting under constant exposure to falling rocks, so we turned our attention to the southeast corner, which we had already examined.

The going became more difficult as we headed to the northeast. All the rocks were smooth and they sloped off at the wrong angle. After jumping a small but eerie-looking rock crack and climbing along the edge of an ice couloir, we emerged some two hours later on a small level shoulder below the southeast corner of the wall. Three of our fissures proved utterly impossible, being blocked on their lower end by rocks or ice. The fourth looked barely possible. As we ran into some rotten rock at this juncture, Lozeron retired to a position safe from falling stones, and I went on unroped to reconnoiter. Progress became more difficult as I approached the chimney in question on account of verglas and the off slant of the rock. But at this point the wall is not excessively steep. Two-thirds of the way up the chimney, is an overhanging block; but from forty feet below on close inspection there appears to be a shelf of rock leading out to the right and around this. Beyond it one cannot see what obstacles there are, but a further climb of fifty feet up rocks which are somewhat broken by fissures would lead to the top of the parapet, and to the easier summit slope.

After long-range consultation, we decided not to go on further because of our inexperience and because of the dangerous nature of the route. It was necessary for me to rappel down from my perch to rejoin Lozeron. In the course of the descent two more longer rappels were necessary, but all the same we were back at the Gul camp by 8 o’clock in the evening, having returned by approximately the same route. Illness of Lozeron prevented any further attempt being made.

This particular southeast corner has been tried several times before: in 1888 by Donkin’s ill-fated party, in 1893 by Collier, New-march and Sully, in 1898 by Rickmer-Rickmers and Hacker, in 1903 by Schulze and Von Ficker, but no one has been successful. It is the opinion of the writer that none of these parties reached the point he has described, which has an estimated altitude of between 14,500 and 14,800 ft., and that no one of them had a close inspection of the chimney in question. The south peak seems more nearly accessible by this route than is generally supposed. Should it prove possible, this route is far and away the best to the south summit on account of its comparative freedom from danger, the absence of extended ice work, and its directness. Should Ushba ever be subdued to the present state of domesticity of the Matterhorn, we can imagine a climb from Betsho via this ridge (with the aid of fixed ropes), which would combine the length and difficulty of the Zmutt ridge with some of the thrills of the Italian side. The matter is certainly worth further investigation.

Ushba has been ascended four times, the south peak twice, the north peak once, and once it has been traversed. The story of these ascents along with that of the numerous defeats is worthy of a book in itself. In 1888 Cockin, with Ulrich Aimer as guide, after two unsuccessful attempts succeeded in gaining the north summit by the great ice ladder on the east side between the two peaks. This was a highly dangerous climb, one which under normal circumstances Cockin estimates would take at least eight hours of continued step-cutting. His success was due partly to extraordinarily favorable conditions. Even then he was forced to descend over the great schrund in the dark, and he completed the descent with only one shoe. Since then this couloir has baffled all comers, Woolley, Sully, Newmarch, Rickmer-Rickmers, Hacker, Merzbacher, Purtscheller and Cockin himself, who made several further attempts. Under present conditions of ice and snow, it seems very dangerous indeed.

In 1903 Schulze, with four German doctors, Helbling, Reichert, Schuster and Weber, made the first ascent of the south peak. This was by the rocks at the southwest angle. Less than a week before, Schulze had fallen the length of his rope (twelve metres) while trying to negotiate these rocks. Rickmer-Rickmers succeeded almost single-handed in lowering his unconscious form down the precipice. The successful party was caught on the summit in a violent thunderstorm, which transferred their rope into a chain of blue trembling light. They were forced to spend the night fully exposed to the storm, but in the morning the weather cleared and they were able to get off the mountain.

Seventeen days later, not to be outdone, Pfann, Distel and Leuchs performed the amazing feat of traversing Ushba, starting by the north arête of the north peak and descending by the Schulze route. This took them five days. They spent four nights on the ice, three of them without sacks, and two without food. When they descended into the gap between the two peaks, they abandoned themselves to Fate, as escape in case of bad weather would have been impossible. It took them six hours to cross the couloir up which Cockin had made his ascent. There are few equal stories of daring, skill and endurance.

In 1929 Semenowski and three Germans, Bechtold, Merkl and Roechl, made the second successful ascent by the Schulze route. They were four days and three nights on the icy rocks. One night they spent on the parapet itself, looking down on the Ushba glacier, 4,000 ft. directly below them. At one point it took them five hours to advance some thirty feet. Such a route will never be easy or free from danger, even with fixed ropes and under the best of conditions.

Of the number of unsuccessful attempts on Ushba, there is no telling. Guesses range from thirty to fifty. In my search among the English records and a few of the French and German periodicals, I have found mention of some twenty attempts by first-class mountain climbers. What the full German records and the Russian records will reveal I cannot tell. There must also have been attempts, perhaps several of them, which have not found their way into print. Thirty seems a conservative estimate.

Climbing on Ushba has been tempered with just enough success to stir one on. It presents as much of a challenge today as it ever did. There is no reason why in the next few years we should not see a resumption of the annual attack, as occurred in the late nineties and in the first five years of this century.

To those who are thinking of making this attack, one can only repeat the sage words of W. Rickmer-Rickmers who, after four unsuccessful attempts on Ushba’s walls in 1898, wrote, “And if the mountain taunts you and defies you to go on, then remember that you must also go back, and that everyone who comes home well has won an honourable day.”

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