Nanda Devi from the North
Louis F. Reichardt and William F. Unsoeld
Reichardt describes the approach and climb:
“What was it like?”
“It covered the whole spectrum from unity to anarchy, from triumph to despair,” I replied. “We were such a diverse group but pulled together when it counted. We came very close to the perfect finale, the summit for everyone!”
Until the annexation of Sikkim, Nanda Devi was the highest peak in India. Located near the source of the Ganges, close to many of the most holy Hindu shrines, Nanda Devi, the “Bliss-giving Goddess,” is named after a consort of Siva. As the highest peak in the British Empire, many naturally wanted to climb it in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but none could even find a way to its base because it is located in a basin or “Sanctuary” surrounded by rugged 20,000-foot peaks. Finally in 1934, Bill Tilman and Eric Shipton found a route up the gorge of the Rishi Ganga, the only river draining this Sanctuary. In 1936 an Anglo-American expedition retraced this route, and two members reached the top. Until Annapurna, it was the highest summit attained by man.
The idea to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that climb emerged in conversation between Ad Carter, a member of the 1936 expedition, and Nanda Devi Unsoeld, named after the “most beautiful mountain I have seen” by her accomplished mountaineering father, Willi Unsoeld. Ad and Willi agreed to be co-leaders. Since 1936 the mountain had been climbed officially only by the Indians and the French, but always by the traditional southern route. Just before we arrived, the Japanese did a second route—a difficult traverse, from the East to the Main peak, that had repulsed two previous expeditions. Our objective was the unrecon- noitered and poorly photographed north ridge.
The expedition was jointly sponsored by the American Alpine Club and the Indian Mountaineering Foundation. Carter and Unsoeld recruited members who would share the special significance this expedition and the mountain had in their own lives. The result was a diverse group—men and women, Indians and Americans, technical climbers and mules. In some ways, it was an unlikely group to succeed on an ambitious Himalayan route. We were not tightly knit by philosophy or prior shared experience. Each person had his own reasons for coming. Some equated success with the summit; others placed more emphasis on the total experience. As Willi said, “It will be an experiment to see if such different people can live and grow together.” There were twelve in all, including four who had climbed higher than Nanda Devi’s summit. Not everyone always felt comfortable with everyone else, but all worked extremely effectively for the common goal.
For those honored by invitations, the period before the expedition was a mixture of excitement and uncertainty. The excitement came from the route and prospective adventure. The uncertainty stemmed from the unknown qualities of fellow climbers, the paucity of good photos, and divisions over what balance should be struck between fixed ropes, American food, and style. Different people had different conceptions of the ideal expedition. It was not clear whose would prevail. In fact the differences proved largely verbal. When preparations were behind us, it became apparent that Carter and Unsoeld had found the material and financial support for a very serious assault.
For Longstaff in 1907, the hike to Nanda Devi began on the plains; in 1936 it began in the foothills. We cut off several weeks of their approach marches. Because of Fisher’s, Devi Unsoeld’s and Carter’s efficient legwork, baggage had cleared customs before most of the members arrived July 7 in Delhi. Only five days later, a truck deposited this expedition 30 miles from the mountain, below the town of Lata.
“Bhalu Sahib!” came the cry from the senior citizen of Lata.
“Sher Singh,” was Ad Carter’s very tentative reply. He had been recognized after 40 years by one of his porters. Master Bear hugged Tiger Lion.
For the nine-day trek to Base Camp, we took 80 porters fom Lata and surrounding villages. One-hundred-twenty goats accompanied us part way, each carrying two five-pound sacks of our porters’ food. Dealing with our porters proved delightful. They were honest and industrious. We paid them 15 rupees to move one load one stage, whether they did this in two days or one hour. There were no problems with theft or strikes. Much of the credit is due to Captain Kiran Kumar, one of our Indian climbers, who doubled as liaison officer. It also helped to have Willi and Devi Unsoeld, whose Nepali was close enough to the local dialect to converse easily with the porters. Devi, in particular, they soon called Didi or sister. Many may have suspected she was the Goddess Nanda returning to visit her mountain; the rest were captivated by her inexhaustible supply of good humor.
For the first five stages to Ramani, we followed Longstaff’s footprints. An animal track ascended 5000 feet through timber to meadows at Lata Kharak. Then we climbed 2000 feet more and crossed two 14,000-foot passes before dropping to that “horizontal oasis in a vertical world,” the green meadows of Dibrugheta. A thin track created by previous expeditions dropped into the Rishi gorge. Crossing the river, we followed thegorge with many detours to skirt cliffs as far as Ramani. From this point the trail was too rugged for goats. Like previous parties, we fixed many ropes over the worst sections, but even so, there were many treacherous spots where a careless step could still be fatal. Fortunately, the monsoon was delayed, so we had comparatively dry conditions on the vertical grass and sloping, hold-less slabs. One day beyond the slabs, we entered the Sanctuary and walked through lush meadows to Base Camp at 14,000 feet.
There were two incidents of special note on the trek, illustrating the genius for compromise and its iimits on this expedition. After the first day’s march from 7000 to 12,000 feet at Lata Kharak, four people became sick from dysentery but feeling tired or tough did not reveal this until most of the porters had left the next morning. The march was over a 14,000-foot pass to the next campsite. Marty Hoey, certainly one of our most committed climbers, had to be carried over the final sections. That evening she became comatose. The next morning she was carried down 3000 slippery feet to Dibrugheta, but her dysentery remained unchecked. Many thought she was beyond help, but our doctor Jim States, oxygen, and nursing by other members helped her recover. The following morning she regained consciousness, but had many signs of severe neurological trauma. States thought she should be evacuated; she thought it was her right to stay. Virtually everyone believed it was in her best interest to be evacuated, but many thought, “The doctor can only advise, not command. The patient retains the right to accept or reject an expert’s opinion.” Law versus medicine. The issue was contested for several hours, until Marty saw it was destroying the expedition’s unity and asked to be evacuated by helicopter. The question of authority was not resolved. Some considered leaving with her.
While Carter remained behind temporarily until the helicopter could arrive, the others pushed ahead. Two days later dissensions had been almost removed from our memories by the shared experience of a beautiful trek. Fifteen hundred feet above Ramani we got the first good view of the mountain and our route. In its beauty, it was stark and ominous; there was no doubt we could not do it alpine-style. Half the rope had been left in Delhi as a compromise with the “purists.” Faced with the route, everyone agreed that morning to send for it. Devi Unsoeld redescended to Ramani to tell her father, who was paying off the goat herders. “I’m the only one he’ll believe unquestioningly.” The message was sent out with Marty. John Evans, late because he had been waiting for the birth of his second child, brought in the rope on August 12.
Ambling on July 22 across the flower-carpeted meadows in the Sanctuary below the gorgeous snow-covered peaks on its outer rim, we were filled with a mixture of excitement and awe. The discovery that such a pristine wilderness could exist in such a densely populated country jarred our senses. We had, after all, just escaped from Delhi. The gentle terrain was a relief after the rugged gorge, yet only a couple of miles distant, paralleling our route, was the north ridge of one of the most inspiring mountains in the Himalaya. The contrast of scenery—grass in the foreground, massive cliffs preventing access to our ridge behind—remained the same as we strolled up the valley. No obvious route emerged around the next corner, nor the corner after that, but this was a day for photography, not worry.
This sunny mood did not last long after sunset. That long line of cliffs, 4000 feet high, completely dominated our Base Camp at Sarson Patal. They had not been visible on our planning photos. While we had known something would be below the terrain seen on these, we were not prepared for the pessimistic report brought back by the one climber who had the energy to climb up the opposite side of the valley high enough to survey them: “There is no way up the cliffs. Even if we could get up, we can’t traverse above them to reach our route. The canyons cutting through the cliffs are impassable. The ice wall is really steep!”
Morale hung by a thread. “We can always haul!” Willi suggested.
“We didn’t advertise that we would climb this route. We can be flexible!” was another view.
“Not the regular route again!” I silently hoped.
Once again we were very lucky. On the first probe, Roskelley and I found an ice bridge that crossed the Rishi Ganga, otherwise a formidable obstacle. Then guided more by instinct than judgment, we scrambled in heavy fog to the top of a blind gully. Cliffs towered over the chock stone at its head, but a fortuitously-placed cat-walk traversed these walls for half a mile to easier ground beyond another gully. “We not only have a route; we have one for porters!” we exulted on the radio.
This evaluation proved slightly premature. While the next morning all the climbers and fifty porters did churn up the gully towards Ridge Camp at 17,700 feet, only 23 of the porters actually reached it. The others dumped their loads at various obstacles below. Even those who made it proclaimed, “Never Again!” They had been so ingenious in finding inaccessible places to dump their loads that it seemed doubtful that our gear would even be found, much less carried further. Fortunately, though, their reaction was a gut one to the unknown more than to the real terrors of the route. Reflection over dinner and discussions with Kumar and Singh, our two Indian members, made this new route seem familiar to them. All returned the next morning to finish their carry. The climbers spent the afternoons organizing mounds of food and gear to fit lists prepared by Harvard and Fisher. It was by far the busiest time on the expedition, but the eight days projected for moving food and gear to Ridge Camp were reduced to four.
The day after the discovery of the initial route, Lev and I returned to Ridge Camp. From there we traversed below a hanging glacier to the next ridge, which was the bottom of the most protected line on the face.
The first large sandy ledge was christened Advanced Base Camp. A few days later, Roskelley and I even raised a tent, but then Kumar and Singh noticed some suspicious holes in the gravelly surface. “Falling bounders,” they suggested gently.
“Can’t be!” was our instinctive reply. They were so large and shallow that we had not paid much attention to them before.
“But see how this one has bounced!” Camp was hastily moved 200 feet lower.
On our first trip across the bare ledges below the glacier tongue, Lev and I carefully placed cairns. Two nights later, the first storm of the delayed monsoon hit, dropping a foot of snow. By the next morning, these ledges were under twenty feet of avalanche debris. Suddenly, we understood how that mysterious ice bridge across the Rishi Ganga had been formed. The avalanches had travelled down 4000 vertical feet of rock below the glacier to cover flowers on the Sanctuary floor. Since it began to snow every afternoon, debate over what fraction had actually slid became intense, if not scientific. “Six carries for everyone,” I, as climbing leader, decreed from a sense of equity. My gut response was very queasy. Crossing the slide zone took 20 minutes each way. Virtually everyone tried to run. Coming back was always worst. “There is no choice at that point. You are left with the horrible suspicion you made a bad mistake that morning.” Some preferred complete carries from Ridge Camp to Advanced Base. Others carried loads to the edge of the slide zone in the afternoon and rushed them across at first light. The danger was real enough to scare, but not quite imminent enough to quit.
By July 29, Advanced Base Camp was established at 17,800 feet under the shadow of the northwest face of Nanda Devi. Tents were pitched on a sloping ledge, levelled with ice axes. Both this and Ridge Camp were on rocky ribs that shed the continual debris discarded by that towering face. Once things were established, Carter and Fisher left to meet other commitments. They had done a superb job in helping us get this far.
On the 30th, States, Roskelley and I made the first tentative sortie up the face. One thousand feet of ice-covered scree and slabs led to the foot of a series of scalloped cliffs. In deteriorating weather, we put in 1000 feet of fixed rope on very unstable snow. We had carried all our hardware, but quickly discovered the most useful anchor was a snow picket driven into a deep crack in the rotten, layered rock lining the left side of the ice. This rock was far too soft to hold pitons convincingly. The climb abruptly ended at the furthest outcrop. A constant “hiss” to our right revealed these rocks were our only protection from continual avalanches down the face.
“The monsoon gets worse every day!” Forced rest days are a chance to meet your neighbor. For me the best part of a Himalayan expedition is the sharing of the experience with other dedicated climbers. Your best friends are made in adversity. Harvard has a firm grasp on Himalayan logistics. He is an easy substitute for a “How To Do It” book. States relentlessly tries to cure sahibs of low-land ailments.
Finally, on August 2, Roskelley, States, and I push the route to a Camp I site at 19,990 feet. A narrow ledge under an overhang, it is the only conceivably safe site. We climb 400 feet higher the next morning, turning back when the sun warms the thin inch-thick layer of ice we are treading on. Suddenly, we feel very exposed.
Bad weather returns. We suffer three more days of “character-building” inactivity.
“Let’s carry to Camp I!”
“Not me! There’s too much snow on that face,” States replies. He is right. Himalayan climbing requires patience.
The “crack” of tent poles was barely audible in the howling wind. “Grab the rear poles,” Roskelley yelled. It was no use. The winds passed down to the Rishi with the powder avalanche. In the four-man tent, States had been blown halfway to the nearest cliff. Gear was scattered 500 feet down the slope.
“It is lucky we are way out on this ridge!”
“You never know. A really big one coming from the summit could bounce anywhere!” Monsoon India is never dull, just frustrating.
“The porters can carry to the ridge,” Kumar had continually insisted.
“Complete novices on technical terrain?” we had skeptically wondered. Finally, consensus was reached. Two Gibbs ascenders, six carabiners, slings, ice axe, crampons, and scrounged clothing were loaned to each of our five best. Nirmal Singh strung a rope across camp and began “Basic Mountaineering.” He was a natural teacher! They loved every minute. “See, Sahib!” The next morning, all went to Camp I. Later, some did reach the top of the face.
Finally on August 7, we carried up the tents for Camp I, which was occupied by Willi, Pete Lev and States. The next morning they reached another possible campsite, under another overhanging cliff, seven hundred feet above Camp I. Lev traversed around this band into the final ice basin. “What’s it like? Will the exit cracks go?” we asked after his rappel.
“I couldn’t really see. They just keep receding.”
During the next two days, Unsoeld, Lev, and States pushed the route across the upper basin and began searching for exit cracks. Snow conditions were marginal in the early morning, impossible once the sun hit. The route kept being forced further and further right into the middle of the basin where avalanche protection was minimal. To cope, breakfast was moved to two A.M., then one A.M. Theirs was a magnificent effort, but it wasn’t always appreciated below.
“How many pitches did you get in today?” was the radioed query.
“We did quite well. I did the hardest leading to date, a pitch of mixed climbing to avoid a gully,” Willi replied. “Then, Jim ran out a final ropeup snow. A dozen sloughs must have hit me in that belay stance. It is really exposed!”
“It sounds hairy. How far did you get altogether?”
“Oh!” The disappointment was audible.
“Reichardt, the strongest should be out in front!” I heard once the radio contact was broken.
“No! It is everyone’s expedition.”
Difficult conditions dictated novel solutions. No one before the expedition would have imagined that it would make sense to put Camp II only 700 feet above Camp I. One day, though, Pete Lev decided this was necessary. Acceptance was slow.
“We need a rest day. We want to move to that upper ledge and then go all out for the ridge the day after tomorrow!”
“It is too short a distance to make any difference. It only takes an hour to get there, but if you insist, go ahead!” we replied.
“Lou, you can’t let them do this. It is crazy!” I’m told later.
One week later, of course, we also decided to move to that ledge and radioed the news to Willi, now below us. “That is music in Pete’s ears, Lou! He is sitting here beaming.” Willi comments. I thought that the climb was proving extremely tough on my preconceptions.
From Camp II Pete and Willi did shoot for the ridge, knowing Roskelley and States had the lead the following day. A two-A.M. start produced two more pitches, one on mixed terrain in the real “exit” gully, but the top was not in sight. Frustrated, Willi said, “It just keeps receding.”
“Our turn!” Roskelley announced. States and he did two-and-a-half more leads and reached easier slopes. They could see the ridge crest and knew they were close, but the day had degenerated into an awful blizzard, After an interminable descent across constantly sloughing gullies, they said, “We can’t go back tomorrow. We need a rest!” From Roskelley, that was an incredible admission. Devi and I prepared for the next attempt. That night, though, the monsoon enveloped the mountain and another frustrating wait began.*
The foul weather continued for six more days, and the mood became black. “Why did we come at this time of year?”
“I don’t know. Never again, though. Next time, I’ll pick the time.”
At Camp I perched on a ledge under an overhang, the fresh snow was indistinguishable from the avalanche flurries. Nine feet of the mixture fell in one day! On the radio, Devi injected a moment of humor, “The porters think the weather is bad because we are eating beef on the mountain.” “What bloody insolence!” Kiran exploded. “I’m eating it, and I am the highest caste of Brahmin. In adversity you can eat anything.”
Soon it was August 19, but the monsoon still raged. We became acutely aware that only 17 days of high-altitude food was left, with the highest occupied camp at only 19,900 feet. The lead ropes had reached 21,500 feet, but were so deeply buried that they seemed divorced from our current prospects. Anyway, the hardest 4000 feet of climbing lay above that. Since motion anywhere had been impossible for two of the past three weeks, optimism once again retreated from our circle. There was great frustration: “We could climb this route in September, but what will we eat?” Roskelley summed up the positive, “At least with only two weeks of food left, this can’t go on forever!”
Elaborate logistic schemes had been prepared, of course, but had almost been forgotten when the snow finally stopped on August 20. From that “scorned” Camp II, it still took two hard days to out-race the receding ridge crest at the top of the face. On August 22, Roskelley and I were finally there. 22,000 feet, said the altimeters, but after we got to the summit, it was apparent it was 1000 feet higher. Curiously, although the northeast face was even steeper than the face we had ascended, the ridge top was flat, a comfortable balcony from which we could see the long brown hills of Tibet to the north, the Indian plains to the south, row after row of ice-clad peaks of our height in the near distance, and the final pyramid of Nanda Devi towering over us.
Two days later, we returned to occupy Camp III. I walked over to take a look at the 1200-foot-high buttress, the last and most severe obstacle. “You can pick out a possible route, so all is not lost, but the whole thing is plastered with snow and ice. Frankly, it is pretty horrendous. We are definitely running out of time and food, only 12 days left. Yet it took 17 days to get from Camp I to here. Considering the difficulty, time and weather, we will be very lucky to make it.”
The logistics to the ridge were quite complicated. While a few stalwarts such as Kumar and Lev carried loads all the way from Camp II, arriving as late as three P.M., most cached loads halfway up the face. We would descend to pick up these the next morning.
States moved up to Camp III on August 25. The next morning, he and Roskelley began working on the buttress. An easy pitch led over a rock band to the upper edge of the final snowfield. Then, as Roskelley described it: “The real work began. Unrelentingly steep, holdless slabs led upwards. Every sloping stance had to be carefully cleared of snow. It was cold, exhausting work. I led on a 9-mm rope, praying that if I fell, it wouldn’t hit any of the sharp rocks present in such profusion.” Two pitches put them under an overhang. Roskelley relates, “With my hand jammed in a crack and crampons kicking at icy slabs, I suddenly thought: ‘Why not just nail it?’ I banged in a three-inch bong and at
last could relax. Just above was a small ledge. I tied off and rappelled.” For me the news of their progress was exhilarating. The buttress could be climbed quickly! The others below, particularly Pete Lev, were also excited and wanted to share the leading, but I told them it would be a mistake to change teams at this critical point.
Roskelley and States returned the next morning. “Steep slabs, shallow awkward chimneys. The three of us—my crampons, étriers, and I— did not get along well at all. A final mantel on a sloping icy rock, it was a spot for the weak of mind,” commented Roskelley. “States just took everything I could shovel down on him all day.” Below, Evans and the two Unsoelds made their sixth consecutive carry on the face.
After a rest day, I joined the third assault on the buttress, which was mercifully easier. From the snowfield halfway up, “Sugar Delight Snowfield,” we traversed into a gully that angled across the face. A 400-foot lead up its snowy floor bypassed the severe difficulties that would otherwise have been our fare. As shadows lengthened, I shivered on an airy perch in the tiny col at the gully’s head as Roskelley completed the climb. “Come down before dark,” I thought. “This is taking forever.” “Unstable snow, shallow chimneys, steep slabs and a final snow slope. I am there but frozen!” stated Roskelley. Ninety minutes later, States, Roskelley and I celebrated the victory in camp with the others. Only Evans and Willi Unsoeld were still below, continuing to carry up the loads that would give everyone a summit shot.
After a rest day on August 30, we started up the ropes the next morning. Everything for Camp IV was reduced to three loads. Extra carries over fraying ropes would tempt fate unnecessarily. Harvard and Kumar carried our loads to the buttress’ base. Lev climbed partway on the buttress with food for later assault teams. He also doubled the most dangerous ropes. Even though vertical, the weight of our Lowe packs could be transferred directly to the rope, so the jümaring wasn’t arduous. My only touchy moment came at the overhang on the fourth pitch. Coming over the crux I noticed the 9-mm rope I was on had been cut to the core. I proceeded gingerly.
Peter was already at the ledge. He gave us food and wished us the best. He had every right to be continuing with us! After I had waited ninety minutes below the last pitch for John and Jim to finish, it was completely dark when I started up the single 9-mm rope. It was an eerie feeling, dangling in space climbing on invisible Jümars. When I was partway up, Jim tossed a belay rope, a nice sense of security.
We had decided on a rest day before the 2500-foot summit push, but woke at six o’clock out of habit. It was warm and windless, the first time we could remember not seeing a plume on the summit. This was too good a chance to miss. Leisurely preparation became feverish. We left at 8:30 A.M.
The route started up the slope at the top of the buttress and then traversed a small saddle to the first real climb. Snow conditions were abysmal—deep, sometimes crusty powder. Roskelley did his bit; then I; then Jim. So it went all day. The steep rise was powder on iced rock. Beyond the rise, we reached a series of fluted hummocks leading to the summit massif. From below, this section had been invisible. It was frustratingly slow for the lead man.
A rock escarpment girded the summit pyramid and provided the only interesting pitch of the day. While Roskelley climbed, I read the altimeter—“600 feet in four hours, 1900 feet to go. We are way too slow to avoid a bivouac. We should get an earlier start tomorrow!”
Roskelley read the mountain. “On a cloudy day I’d have agreed with you, but the shadows said we were halfway,” he commented afterwards. Forced to choose, I continued with them. Summit and bivouac seemed better than no summit and no bivouac. A small manteled overhang put us on the summit ice. Half a pitch reached the ridge. First an arm, then a thigh, knee, and tentative footstep; our progress was very slow in the deep powder. Suddently, the left side of our ridge disappeared. It was a slab avalanche. We felt lucky to be on a ridge crest.
After only five more rope-lengths, we reached the summit plateau, where each hump blocked the next. Finally States approached a low cornice. He dove over it as we followed in one pile of rolling and hugging climbers. “This is it!” The altimeter read 1200 feet too low! It was only 2:30 P.M. on an unbelievably warm and windless afternoon. To be on this summit with these good comrades seemed worth 12 months of monsoon.
The next morning we were back in Camp III with every other climber on the expedition. The perfect finale seemed very near. No one anticipated how empty a victory would be left to us.
Unsoeld describes the second summit attempt:
Following their magnificent summit success on September 1, Lou Reichardt, John Roskelley and Jim States descended to Camp III the following day. The second summit party of Pete Lev, Andy Harvard and Devi Unsoeld had been slated to occupy Camp IV that day, but an ominous black cloud which settled slowly around the summit block persuaded them to take another rest day. As it turned out, the cloud lifted in the afternoon and the day became fine, making it easy for the summiters to descend to Camp III.
This reunion of our entire expedition was the first we had had since early in the climb, and it was a happy time as we congratulated our successful team members on their outstanding summit effort and heard their account of the difficulties they had overcome above Camp IV. Morale was extremely high. The weather seemed to be improving steadily and two more summit parties were poised for immediate attempts. Rascal (John Roskelley) and Jim both expressed worry about Andy’s persistent cough and Devi’s current diarrhea and flare-up of an inguinal hernia which had shown up originally on the second day of the approach march. However, Andy had been coughing during the whole trip and Devi had never been slowed by either diarrhea or hernia while carrying between the lower camps. Our situation seemed so ideal that within the next three days both Rascal and Lou headed for Base Camp— Rascal intending to await our return from the summit and Lou to head out to try to make it back home to join his wife, Kathy, in time for the birth of their first child.
On September 3 then, the second summit team headed for Camp IV while our third unit, consisting of John Evans, Nirmal, Kiran and me, trailed along to carry another tent and extra food to cache. With seven climbers trying to use the fixed ropes at once, the waits were too long and so we four turned back from the top of the third pitch. As we rappelled down the buttress and watched our second team slowly working their way upward, we marvelled at the kind of climbing which Rascal had performed while leading this stretch, going from F8 or F9 to direct aid and back, and in crampons.
At seven P.M. Pete radioed that he had just arrived at Camp IV after leaving Devi and Andy behind in order to steam ahead to get the camp ready and water going. At eleven o’clock we got word that Andy had pulled in and that Devi was on the last pitch. It took her until midnight to haul up over the final lip to Camp IV. It had been a long, slow day for her. The next day was brilliantly clear, but the summit party was not in condition to take advantage of it.
On September 5 our back-up party of four moved early to join Pete’s group for a joint summit try the next day. We set three P.M. as the deadline by which we would have to reach the Sugar Delight Snowfield or else turn back. Picking up the cached food and gear increased our packs to dangerous proportions. Kiran and I did not reach the snowfield until around four o’clock and Evans and Nirmal were still a pitch below. The snowfall was increasing and so we were forced to drop our loads where we were and retreat, despite Kiran’s protests. As it was, we didn’t reach Camp III until nine P.M. and all four us were dragging from the effort.
September 6 dawned clear and bright, and since I felt remarkably strong despite our previous day’s exertion, I decided to go all-out and join the party at Camp IV for a summit attempt. They had radioed that Pete had made a reconnaissance yesterday to halfway to the summit before turning back in the bad weather. Kiran and Nirmal were too tired to make another effort so soon, and Evans was wiped out by an illness which later turned out to be the onset of hepatitis.
The familiar ground flowed smoothly past under my Jiimars until I reached the snowfield. I was elated to see that to the mid-point it had taken only two-and-three-quarters hours actual Jümar time. There I added more food and a tent from the cache and put on my crampons for the traverse into the gully (called “Spindrift Alley” by the first party). My pack was very heavy now, but I found the beauty and boldness of the route totally exhilarating. The 400 feet of the gully were a ghastly slog with no certain footing in the depth of sugar snow which had accumulated. The final pitch to the lip at Camp IV was 200 feet of vertical going with occasional small traverses to attempt to keep the rope away from the nastier rock teeth which protruded from the wall. It was a definite relief to heave myself over the snow lip at the top.
September 7 was a pure blizzard at Camp IV and none of us moved from the tent. It was a day full of liquids and the easy talk which fills rest days at high altitudes. Devi was feeling better, but was still quite weak when measured against the energy output required for the summit try. It was decided that she should wait at Camp IV while the rest of us made our try and then descend with us the same day to Camp III.
However, that night was a bad one for Devi. Her stomach generated gas in such quantities that she simply could not sleep and spent most of the night sitting up to belch it forth. By morning she was extremely tired. Because of the high winds and continuing snow, we decided to head down at noon and wait for better weather in the relative comfort of Camp III. Pete, Andy and Devi had now been at 24,000 feet for nearly five days. We were packed for departure when at 11:45 Devi was suddenly stricken. She had time only to say with great calm, “I am going to die,” when she lapsed into unconsciousness. We tried mouth- to-mouth resuscitation and CPR, but with no sign of success. Within 15 minutes I felt her lips growing cold against mine and I knew that we had lost her. We continued our efforts to revive her for another half hour without result. As the enormity of our loss slowly sank in, the three of us could only cling to one another for comfort while tears coursed down our beards.
As our faculties gradually returned to us, we discussed what was to be done. We agreed that it would be most fitting for Devi’s body to be committed to the snows of the mountain for which she had come to feel such a deep attachment. Andy, Peter and I knelt in a circle in the snow and grasped hands while each chanted a broken farewell to the comrade who had so recently filled such a vivid place in our lives. My final prayer was one of thanksgiving for a world filled with the sublimity of the high places, for the sheer beauty of the mountains and for the surpassing miracle that we should be so formed as to respond with ecstasy to such beauty, and for the constant element of danger without which the mountain experience would not exercise such a grip on oursensibilities. We then laid the body to rest in its icy tomb, at rest on the breast of the Bliss-Giving Goddess Nanda.
And so the three of us climbed down—in a mist of tears and anguish. Our bodies performed automatically those actions necessary for survival —with little assistance from our numbed minds. The blizzard continued unabated and we did not stumble into Camp III until ten P.M. Earlier that morning Jim States and Kiran Kumar had had to evacuate John Evans and Nirmal Singh, both of whom showed symptoms of serious illness. On September 10 we sadly descended to Advanced Base while the high-altitude porters evacuated as much gear as possible below Camp III. By the 13th everyone was back at Base Camp and ready for the march out.
And so the expedition came to an end—a mixture of brilliant success and stark tragedy. The complete ascent of an entirely new and unknown route of an extremely high order of technical difficulty while struggling with unusually severe monsoon conditions was an outstanding achievement. Despite serious differences in climbing philosophies, coordination and support during the climb had been excellent. Much of this success can be credited to the superb job done by Lou Reichardt as our climbing leader, who balanced the various viewpoints with complete confidence and aplomb and kept our various sub-groups together throughout the climb. And of course, the leading done on the buttress by John Roskelley and so ably seconded by Jim States had set a new standard of Himalayan difficulty for American climbers, a standard which compares favorably with any attained by European climbers.
So what can be made of Devi’s death? It is still extremely hard for me to even attempt to deal with it. The fact that we will never know the exact cause is somehow additionally significant. It was none of the usual high-altitude maladies which claimed her so suddenly. The transition from life and optimistic action to loss of consciousness and death was too fast to fit any ordinary illness. Something massive—something abdominal—is about as close as we can come.
The greatest help I have found in overcoming the shock of Devi’s passing is the memory of her surpassing happiness during the climb. She was continually bubbling over with the excitement at finally coming to grips with “her” mountain, chortling her hilarity at the many weird and precious relationships which came to light among the members of the expedition, and simply glowing with her foolish grin in appreciation of the intricate beauty of the terrain and its delicate effect upon each of us who had come so far to experience it. She loved all mountains deeply and this mountain in particular. So she had climbed hard, helped hard, hoped hard, and dreamed ecstatically of the final outcome. From her standpoint I cannot find it in me to believe she was disappointed. For the rest of us, left behind with Devi’s shining example of how human relationships can be handled in an exemplary manner, it remains simply to follow her brother Regon’s advice and each of us “take up the slack in the rope that she’s passed on to us” as best we can.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Garhwal, India.
Ascent: Nanda Devi, 25,645 feet, fifth ascent via new route: northwest face and north ridge, summit reached September 1, 1976 (Reichardt, Roskelley, States).
Personnel: H. Adams Carter and William F. Unsoeld, co-leaders; Louis F. Reichardt, climbing leader', Captain Kiran Kumar and Nirmal Singh, Indians', John Evans, Elliott Fisher, Andrew C. Harvard, Marty Hoey, Peter Lev, John F.C. Roskelley, James States, M.D., Nanda Devi Unsoeld, Americans.
* The monsoon of 1976 was said to have been the most severe in a great many years. —HAC.