American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing


  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1981


Susan Coons, Harvard Mountaineering Club

I REMEMBER SPRING in another country, the snow just gone from the dry meadows. We walked up river with Hindu pilgrims seeking the source of the Ganges. Women in bright saris asked us why we had no children or jewelry, and laughed at our bare knees.

The American women’s ascent of Annapurna in 1978 set a precedent for women’s climbing in the Himalayas. However, big expeditions necessarily involve a great deal of organization and money. Arlene Blum was attracted by the idea of a simpler expedition without high-altitude porters. John Thakray’s ascent of Thalay Sagar last year made the unclimbed peaks in the Gangotri Glacier region seem attractive and the approach feasible. Colonel L.P. Sharma, studying map-making in the United States, an Indian climber familiar with the Gangotri region, offered valuable advice. His daughter, Rekha, joined the climbing team, and served as liaison officer.

Brigupanth, whose name means the path to enlightenment for a Hindu saint, was still unclimbed. Just north of Thalay Sagar in the western Garhwal, it rises to 22,218 feet. Though the peaks to the east near Nanda Devi had attracted many expeditions, this region had been closed to foreign expeditions since 1940.

Arlene assembled an international expedition with a climbing team that included two Indian members, Rajkumari Chand and Rekha Sharma, Penny Brothers from New Zealand, and Americans: Nancey Goforth, Piro Kramar, Christy Tews, and me. Barbara Drinkwater, a physiologist, joined us for the opportunity to measure women’s adaptation to altitude and was the only non-climbing member. We are grateful for support from the Vera Watson-Alison Chadwick-Onyszkiewicz Memorial Fund.

We arrived at Gangotri on May 25. At evening we went down to the river. The Bhagirathi River boiled and thudded with boulders and the priest’s voice, chanting in Sanscrit, then Hindi, seemed to merge with the rhythm of the water moving. The sun broke through, sending shafts of light deep into the gorge. The priest handed us a bag of sacred rice, incense and herbs, placed red tika on our foreheads, and tied string on our wrists. We participated in the ceremony, not knowing the significance of the words. We hoped we could approach the climb in harmony with local custom.

Fifteen porters were used to help carry loads up the Kedar Ganga Gorge to Base Camp at 14,500 feet. From Base Camp we could see Brigupanth rising stark next to Thalay Sagar. The stunning west face looked dangerous and unyielding. The northwest arête was elegant but steep with no break for camps. A more conservative route spiraled around the mountain to the east.

Above Advance Base at 16,000 feet, we were to carry all loads ourselves. Daily slides of snow and ice on the face below the northwest buttress made us decide to abandon that route. Our chosen route started in an icefall, traversed a glacial basin, and ascended a couloir between Brigupanth and Thalay Sagar to a saddle at 20,000 feet. We considered logistics, and planned to rotate teams of equal strength to lead and carry.

To avoid the debilitating midday sun, we rose at three A.M. and arranged loads under the stars. Though the glacier should be most stable at that hour, we heard the ice crack and fall. Camp was established below the couloir at 18,000 feet on a snow dome that we hoped was free from avalanche danger.

One evening it began to snow, accumulating an inch an hour. The hiss and rumble of snow was audible, sliding from the ridge between us and the Jogin group. Christy’s eyes reflected something her voice did not, as she calmly discussed avalanche danger. The shadow of Annapurna hung over us, incomprehensible to those who hadn’t been there. We decided to descend together.

By mid June, the camp at Snow Dome at 18,000 feet was well stocked, and we were ready to climb the couloir. The climbing was straightforward: 2000 feet of snow and ice at a general angle of 45°. We fixed line for everyone to carry loads and descend quickly. The siege style was consistent with our conservative position to make it safe for everyone to climb, though we recognized that it might be necessary to have a fast party with experience and judgement take precedence.

In the next few days we established a camp in the basin above, from which the east face of Brigupanth and our route to the summit were visible. The basin at 20,000 feet was wide and marvelous with the granite walls of the face of Thalay Sagar on one side, and Meru on the other. Meru’s summit ridge was made up of jagged fins laced with ice. Meru is associated with the mythical hidden valley of Shambala1; perhaps we were really in a lush and fruitful place, and the ice and rock were all our limited spirits could see. Our route looked long. The face itself was ice and the final obstacle was a band of rock on the summit pyramid.

After regrouping at Snow Dome, we got through on the radio to those below at Advance Base. Of the five here, three would move up to High Camp at 20,000 feet, rest a day, and make a summit attempt. It was already clear that our food reserves were limited. Piro decided to descend to catch crucial physiologic measurements on the returning summit team. Christy decided to wait for a second party. From Advance Base, where she was recovering from bronchitis, Arlene presented a plan of rotating teams. Nancey Goforth, Penny Brothers and I moved up to High Camp. Christy and Rekha followed the next day with hardware and food. Their support was welcome.

At four A.M. on June 15, Penny, Nancey and I started for the summit under stars in cold winds. In the darkness, ice broke loose from the flanks of Meru. By the time dawn colored the walls of Thalay Sagar, we were above the broken ice. By midday we had gained less than half the altitude to the summit. The face above looked long. We considered a bivouac, but without fuel, extra food or sleeping bags, it was impractical. We decided to turn back.

The radio frustrated all attempts to communicate with those below, so we descended to 18,000 feet for resupply. It had become obvious that there was not a second team to replace or follow us. We would have to move back up as quickly as possible to stay within our food reserves.

On June 18, from a bivouac above High Camp we set out at eight A.M., late enough to avoid the pre-dawn cold. Again, conditions slowed us down, powder slab snow over ice. Nancey moved 70 feet onto the face and found she was climbing ice. She placed a screw and continued for 150 feet where we switched leads. I went ahead two or three pitches. Sometimes the snow held steps, but more often I was on the ice underneath. Axe placements were crucial; the general angle was 50°. What an effort it was, clearing the snow, kicking crampons into the ice, and swinging the axe, the cold air burning my throat and lungs! It took fifteen minutes to place a screw in the dense and brittle surface.

By the end of the day we reached the top of the face and had a delicate traverse in deep powder to the rock gully below the summit. The sky was threatening a storm and it would be dark within an hour. We seemed so close, but the descent would be long and tedious. We had only part of a gas cartridge and little food at the bivy site. We turned as the lightning broke above the peaks behind us. Draped in darkness we began a series of rappels, placing ice screws carefully. I wondered if we would have the strength to climb in the morning, or if we had forsaken our chance to reach the summit.

The next morning we did climb over the same ground, moving quickly this time with consolidated steps and the protection in place. Within three hours we reached our high point of the day before. Penny moved up, placing a pin in the rock in a long traverse to the final rock band. We could see it was stratified and loose, with intermittent layers dissolved. She moved cautiously, rocks slipping from her crampons. Had we met these conditions anywhere else, we might have given up the project for a more promising route in more stable conditions. Penny’s lead stopped just short of the top of the rock. The belay, for what it was worth, wasmore solid than anything above. I moved ahead, stepping carefully on loose plates in my crampons and climbed a short overhang, moving into soft snow above. I traversed in loose snow and stepped through the cornice, catching my axe in the ice on the other side. I realised that this was the summit and the others moved up. Because the clouds moved in, we could see nothing.

We remembered the packet of holy rice, which the priest at Gangotri had directed us to bring down and toss into the Bhagirathi River. We started the long series of rappels in thickening clouds at dusk.

The next morning in dull weather we left the bivy site and headed down, walking the last hundred yards into High Camp side by side. Arlene and Christy greeted us with water and food; we were grateful, but our throats were so dry we couldn’t speak. In the next several days, we descended, clearing the mountain as we could.

At Base Camp we were prime specimens. As the physiological measurements were taken we began the process of sorting gear.

Barbara’s preliminary report suggests that, though we acclimatized well, and had no symptoms of altitude sickness, our hemoglobin count rose less than that reported for men at the same altitudes.

Our success as an expedition did not depend on our having reached the summit. We had a balanced international team, assembled with minimum organization and expense. We were able to climb without high-altitude porters. We balanced climbing styles between alpine and expedition standards. If there is positive logic in doing things separately as a group of women, it is not to challenge men or society, to whom, finally, it matters little, but for ourselves.

After a month of springtime, Base Camp meadow was lush with wild flowers. As we packed to leave camp, the skies cleared. We had never seen Brigupanth so clearly as at that moment, when all the fragments of the climb coalesced in the final shape etched now in our minds as vividly as the mountains of home. The mountain itself, entirely unchanged, somehow reflected the changes in us and we headed downriver with its melting snows, to toss, laughing, the sacred rice into the river on our safe return.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Gangotri Glacier, Garhwal, Himalaya, India.

First Ascent: Brigupanth, 6772 meters, 22,218 feet, June 19, 1980 (Brothers, Coons, Goforth).

Personnel: Rekha Sharma, liaison officer, and Rajkumari Chand, Indians', Penny Brothers, New Zealander; Arlene Blum, leader, Christy Tews, Nancey Goforth, Susan Coons, Barbara Drinkwater, physiologist, and Pira Kramar, Americans.

1 See the discussion in The Way To Shambala, by Edwin Bernbaum. Garden City: Anchor Press, 1980.

This AAJ article has been reformatted into HTML. Please contact us if you spot an error.