American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Nuptse

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1962

Nuptse

Joseph Walmsley, Alpine Club

Nobody had ever tried to climb 25,850-foot Nuptse before Photographic evidence and past observation by our patron, Sir John Hunt, had shown a possible route to the summit by the south ridge. This way involved a two-mile traverse at 25,000 feet from the south ridge of the summit. When Chris Bonington and I recon- noitered the south face of Nuptse over a period of five days, we found a better route on the central ridge, which led more directly to the summit. When the rest of the expedition rejoined us after resting en route at Thyangboche, we set up Base Camp by the Nuptse Glacier at a height of 17,000 feet beneath the central ridge.

Since Base Camp was on the opposite side of the glacier from the ridge, we had to establish a glacier dump for moving supplies on to the mountain. Ten porters were selected from those who had carried expedition gear from Kathmandu. They were to move supplies from Base to the dump in a few days, whilst expedition members climbed on the ridge and set up camps. On the morning of the 12th of April, Les Brown and I moved away from Base to reconnoiter the route on the ridge. We traversed the glacial moraine, slid down on powdered rock debris to the glacier below, clambered over mounds of unsteady rock and ice, sometimes slipping and falling, skirted around ice craters, and occasionally climbed through fangs of ice set like spears. There was a hint of a track, but it was not worth our time to make a better one for later crossings, for nothing was stable on the glacier; so cairns were built to show the best of a rough passage. It was a great relief to reach the far side of the glacier and step onto hard snow.

Above the glacier, the best part of our route led up a series of easy snow slopes which rose steeply into the abrupt flanks of the ridge. We climbed slowly beneath the hot sun and soon reached the spot where Camp I was established later (18,000 feet). From this site the easiest route appeared to ascend a short, steep chimney, but as the rock was excessively loose, we moved over into a nearby couloir whose most obvious feature was a trail of broken rock debris.

For some way up the couloir our route lay over loose, broken rock on a slippery surface of black ice. Almost every other foothold was unstable and slid out. We seemed to choose the most tortuous and arduous ways at first. About halfway up the flank of the ridge we moved into a shallow chimney of steep ice and rock slabs, which were inclined to be loose and required great care but allowed rapid progress. When we were about 200 feet from the crest of the ridge, the way appeared clear and since the hour was late, we roped back down the ridge, confident that the route to Camp II was established. The following day, April 13, Dennis Davis and Nawa Dorje completed the climb on the side of the ridge and reached the site of Camp II (19,000 feet). Chris Bonington, Jim Swallow, Simon Clark and three porters moved up in support and occupied Camp I. In the space of two days we had climbed 2000 feet from Base and made a route as far as Camp II.

Chris took over from Dorje the next day whilst the others shifted Camp II to a better position along the ridge. With Dennis he moved farther up the ridge, which rambled along in a broken fashion until the way was barred by a steep rock wall. They traversed across this barrier to the first natural break, a V-chimney with smooth side walls and an ice- filled crack at the back. Below was an ice slope sweeping down for over a thousand feet to the snowfield below Camp I; above, a small overhang at the top of the chimney and a trace of the blue ice slopes higher against the sky. Chris jammed his way up the chimney by use of body and leg friction until at the overhang he could rest on a good foothold in a crack on the right wall. He knocked in a piton for security; then pulling on it, he swung around the overhang. It had been a very fine effort on a severe rock pitch.

Beyond the overhang the two climbers made steady progress cutting steps in the hard ice, knocking in ice pitons and placing fixed rope on the 50° slope. Their position on the ice "nose” could not have been more exposed. And when the slope reared up and they were almost rubbing noses against it, they traversed into a chute by the side of a rock pillar. At the top of the chute they climbed an ice wall for about 40 feet, cutting handholds now as well as footholds, until they stepped over onto an ice platform on the top of the rock pillar (19,800 feet). When the tents of Camp III had been erected, there was little room left outside for movement, just a clearance of about one foot on the sides and two feet at the ends.

Chris and Dennis continued to extend the route from Camp III along the most difficult part of the ridge so far. Just above camp they climbed steeply on the east side of the ridge and then ascended to its crest to avoid vertical rock and unstable snow. They then had to descend and clamber to the side of a rock gendarme, which was best negotiated by climbing over a boss of ice virtually stuck onto its side. This manoeuvre required great care, and they heaved a sigh of relief upon reaching the firmer ice of the ridge again. They moved around an ice pillar, into another niche on the ridge, then through a tunnel in the ice and back onto the east side of the ridge. A mantleshelf and a rising traverse led them into yet another niche. The twists and turns of the ridge were most confusing, so much so that Chris and Dennis thought there was little point in going on. The ridge was certainly a long one, and they were filled with dismay at the thought of these complicated moves all the way. But they did climb on, now mostly on the west side, and found the way more open and straightforward.

The route continued with a series of ''knight” moves along the ridge where nearly every position needed the protection of fixed ropes. Two places were especially difficult where the climbers were pushed outwards as the ice leaned against them from the crest of the ridge. Handholds as well as footholds had to be cut as big as possible before climbing over the top. As Dennis and Chris climbed higher, they reached an amphitheatre. This was truly beautiful in form, having the shape of the cutting edge of a scimitar gouged into the ice and plunging like a chute into the depths below. A traverse on the steep, curved wall along a fracture below the crest gave relatively easy footwork and soon led onto a large rock gendarme barring the way along the ridge. From the amphitheatre it appeared to be a difficult problem, but closer inspection revealed a broken corner and a cracked ledge which led fairly easily to the top. The route now eased from the steepness below but alas, there was no room for a campsite. At their farthest point for the day a small hollow was found which would perhaps be big enough for one very small tent. This would have to do as a temporary site and dumping spot for loads until the way ahead was better defined. Dennis and Chris returned to Base for a well earned rest.

At the small hollow in the ridge, Les and John Streetly had established Camp IVa. There was little enough room for the small tent and its sides drooped for lack of space for the guy lines. The wind across the ridge caught it often and worried it like a dog with a bone. They climbed further along the ridge, surmounting two awkward rock platforms and discovered a more accommodating niche in the ridge, though still a wind funnel. The rest of the day was spent in moving Camp IVa to Camp IVb. When the pair continued the next day, they climbed near the crest of the ridge, more often than not on thin blades of ice. The route was fraught with danger. As they used their ice axes, the shafts frequently went through the ridge from one side to the other. Smooth rock slabs below foiled attempts to escape from the edge of the ridge. At last, exhausted and dispirited, they returned to .camp and thence towards Base, giving Chris and Simon a chance to move into their places.

Because of the difficulties on the high traverse, this pair went straight from camp on a long horizontal traverse, well below the previous line; it proved much more accommodating. The rocks jutting out from below gave stable snow conditions and safe climbing. A steep ice wall, several hundreds of feet in length, posed a problem, but steps were readily cut and the angle was remarkably easy for a horizontal traverse. Moving carefully and fixing a thin handrail, they quickly passed this stretch. At long last the main mass of the mountain was within reach. A steep, direct rise of some 200 feet, followed by a long traverse below the crest, led them finally to the end of the ridge at 20,700 feet. It had taken about nine days to prepare the route between Camps III and IV, but here there was plenty of room for the tents of the latter, unlike at the fiddling small sites of IVa and IVb: these would have to be used as staging points for the lifts to IV, since the distance between the two camps was too great. There appeared to be no further technical difficulties to the summit except for the dark, rock band between the junction of the ridge and the summit couloir. The band had been seen from below, but everybody felt confident about surmounting any rock difficulty. On the 28th of April Camp IV was established.

On the 4th of May I moved up to Camp IV, leaving Simon at Camp III. He had come down from IV to make room for me, before descending to Base for a rest. With Tashi and Pemba I broke trail in the freshly fallen snow. My foam mattress bulged from the top of my rucksack, catching most of the ice projections. As I cut steps to improve the route, I wondered how long they would last before the next snowstorm. During the morning the weather was fair, but by midday snow flakes were splattering our faces and by the time we reached IVb stage dump, were falling quite heavily. Nima and Nawa Dorje appeared through veils of falling snow, covered with it, but climbing carefully with excellent rope technique. They reported a shortage of food at Camp IV, and I asked Tashi to fetch more the next time he lifted to IV stage dump. Nima and Nawa started back up from the niche and I followed, keeping them well within sight. The route to Camp IV had few deviations and took almost a direct line across the flank of the ridge. The ice-covering on the rock slabs was thin in parts, and sometimes it took a lot of effort to keep one’s balance and footing. I reached Camp IV at 2:30 p.m., and was greeted by Dennis, Jim Swallow and Les. The chief difficulty above there, they reported, were daily falls of fresh snow, making any route hard labour indeed. We decided therefore to place Camp V a shorter distance from Camp IV than was originally intended. Dennis and Jim Swallow would occupy this camp while Les and I supported them.

At ten the next morning Les and I struggled out of our tent and set off up the ice slopes behind the camp, with Dennis and Jim following. Breaking trail with a heavy load was hard work. Where the slope steepened, a marker flag showed the end of a fixed rope. When possible, I dug out the old steps but more often than not made my own. My gloves were frequently in the snow and soon froze solid, an awkward situation when I wanted to change my grip on the ice axe. About halfway, Dennis took over the task of breaking trail and continued to the top of the slope, where we hacked a fine permanent site for the two tents (21,600 feet). Later, back in Camp IV, Les and I thought of drinking tea, but alas, Nawa told us, "No tea.” In fact there was always a shortage of something or other at Camp IV.

A few days later, after Pemba and Tashi had joined us at Camp IV, I sent them up to join Dennis and Jim, so as to relieve them of cooking difficulties and help with load carrying from Camp V. From there the four climbers moved on by rope lengths as a safety measure because of the tremendous exposure; a slip, even on relatively easy climbing ground, would allow little chance of recovery, for the slopes swept down precipitously to the snowfield below Camp I.

On the 11th of May Dennis and Tashi set up Camp VI (22,500 feet) and on the following day climbed the snowfield leading up to the rock band. The ice flutings on their right forced them into a groove of hard snow where it was necessary to cut steps. Tashi would not let Dennis keep the lead but insisted on alternating. They had to wade across a deep, wide crevasse covered by soft snow which they hoped would not collapse beneath them before they reached the snow shelf leading to the rock band. Here they used a snow rake clearly seen from below. Soft snow on broken rock was the chief difficulty and not severe rock climbing as they had envisaged. Every step had to be pressed firmly into the snow and consolidated for security. Their feet now felt like blocks of ice. Eventually the rake turned around a corner and left the obvious line of ascent up a dièdre of rock covered with soft powder snow. Dennis led, jamming his crampon points into the walls, knowing by the feel of the biting points as to whether his footholds were firm or not. Since there was no room to rest or bring Tashi up to a stance, he carried on to the top of the groove. With numb fingers and toes, there, where the difficulties seemed worse, he tore off his gloves, plunged his hands into the snow for security, and hauled himself over the edge. From the top of the chimney, Tashi and Dennis advanced a short distance but because the upper snowfield was too far away for the time available, they turned back towards Camp VI. The rock band had proved much easier than had been expected. All that remained now was a long traverse to the summit couloir and on to the top.

The next day Camp VII (23,500 feet) was located at the beginning of the upper snowfield and beneath a line of rock buttresses which stand out proudly from the steep ice slopes. Dennis and Tashi then returned to Camp VI as Jim and Pemba moved up to join them. Les and Chris ascended from Camp IV while Nawa and I carried supporting loads to the Camp VI dump before glissading and climbing back to Camp IV.

The following day, the 13th of May, Nawa and I descended the ridge taking newspaper photographs and assessing the food and paraffin (kerosene—Editor.) situation at all camps in case we had to make a sustained attack on the mountain. There was, I knew, a shortage of fuel in particular. If the fellows in Camp VI made nought of their position, we should certainly have to buy more local food and supplies from Namche Bazar. Eventually that day I arrived back at Base Camp and spent two most anxious days peering through binoculars at the face, assessing progress and deciding whether or not to order more food and fuel with our limited funds.

The same day Chris and Les climbed from Camp VI to occupy Camp VII while Dennis and Tashi carried supporting loads. The tent was pitched on a rock slab at the edge of the snowfield, where its occupants were disturbed by some slight falls of rock and ice from the rock buttresses above. The next morning at about 10:30 a.m., not long after the sun had struck the tent, they started slowly across the snowfield, belaying every pitch, and climbed diagonally towards the rock buttresses and then along by their base on the lip of the bergschrund. They had to cut steps all the way in the hard, steep snow, feeling exposed and very much alone, with the summit rocks towering for several thousand feet above their heads and the summit couloir out of sight beyond the rocks. A small rock buttress barred the way, but they managed to traverse around it with crampon points feeling out the rock beneath the snow covering. On the ice and snow again progress was better and eventually they began to cut steps on a rising incline towards the summit couloir. Since it was now 4:30 p.m. and the two had been on the move for six and a half hours, cutting steps all the time, they returned towards Camp VII. Back in camp at 6:30, they were happy to find Tashi and Dennis with a meal cooked for them.

On Monday the 15 th of May, with Les and Chris carrying supporting loads, Dennis and Tashi left Camp VII at 9:30 and progressed rapidly in the already made steps across the snowfield. By midday they had reached the farthest point of the previous day’s traverse. At three o’clock they had found a suitable place for a camp site, a rock shelf below a rock island in the snow (23,800 feet). Dennis and Tashi cleared the platform for their tent, cutting ice blocks and stacking them up to broaden the space. Even so, it was never big enough, and the tent hung loosely on slack guy lines.

The following morning, Dennis and Tashi left camp at seven and began the long, hard task of cutting the steps up the summit couloir. They took alternate leads; Tashi always zig-zagged in his tracks whilst Dennis climbed straight up. After six hours of continuous step cutting, they reached the summit ridge and what a relief it was! Most of the way had been in the shade and very cold, and only in the last quarter of the ascent had the sun reached them and warmed their spirits. After a brief rest they set off towards the summit along the ridge. They traversed on the north side of Nuptse and climbed on soft snow over rocks at a relatively easy angle. Two minor ridges crossed their way and beyond lay the summit, which seemed miles off. Tashi advised their return. It was now 3:30 and to continue might mean a bivouac. But they went on always a little farther until the highest point seemed within easy reach only a few rope lengths away; this proved to be a false top, but just beyond was the true summit. It was 4:15 when they finally reached it. There was nothing higher. They could see Mount Everest, black and dry of snow. Lhotse, wreathed in clouds, was connected to Nuptse by a ridge with small, sharp subsidiary peaks. They remained on top for about fifteen minutes, then wearily started the descent. Even the already cut steps in the couloir gave them no sense of relief. At seven they reached camp, where they found Chris, Les, Jim and Pemba ready for a second attempt the following day.

The second attempt was also successful, so much so that the party of four reached the top by 11:30 A.M. and was back in Camp VIII by two. Over the remaining days, the rest of the expedition cleared the mountain of gear and food whilst the summit parties rested in Base.

For a Himalayan peak, the mountain was technically quite difficult on the connecting ridge between Camps II and IV. We had a share of fine and bad weather, but there was just enough good to see us through. We climbed the mountain in less than six weeks from the date of setting up Base to the date of our departure.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Northeastern Nepal, close to Mount Everest.

Ascent: The first ascent of Nuptse, 25,850 feet, by Dennis Davis and Tashi, May 16, 1961 and by Christopher Bonington, J. Swallow, L. Brown and Pemba, May 17, 1961.

Personnel: Joseph Walmsley (leader), L. Brown, Dr. James Swallow, James Lovelock, G. John S. Streetly, Simon G. McH. Clark, Christopher J. S. Bonington, C. T. Jones, Dennis P. Davis. Sherpas: Tashi, Nawa Dorje, Nima Tensing, Pemba, Ang Tsering (sirdar), Ang Tsering (cook), Taki and Kani (cook boys).

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