Lagunak Ridge, Ama Dablam
WE HAD originally planned on having six expedition members. One, however, was a no-show from the very start; another opted for a different climbing expedition after reaching Base Camp. This left four of us: Hooman Aprin, Martin Zabaleta, Andy Kurtz and me.
The leader of this expedition was Hooman—a short, muscular, soft-spoken, iron-willed man with an obsession for trusting people and climbing mountains. A veteran of expeditions throughout the world, Hooman has climbed in Nepal no less than eight times.
Andy is from Colorado, a geologist rock climber who had been a client of Hooman’s on a Nepali trek several years ago. A strong rock climber with limited alpine experience, he finally left the expedition after he injured his arm while jümaring to Camp II. Martin climbed Everest in 1980, was on expeditions to Makalu and Lhotse and was far and away the most experienced high-altitude climber among us. Martin is a carpenter in Oakland and took off as little time as possible for the trip, avoiding the time-consuming walk-in by flying to the village of Lukla and then flying out from there again after the climb.
Leaving from Kathmandu on October 7, we allowed for a two-week approach hike to Base Camp and then about 25 days of climbing from Base Camp to the summit and back to Base Camp.
Our approach hike in reality took only 10 days which included several rest and acclimatization days. However, a late monsoon snowstorm inspired by a cyclone in northern India left us wading in knee-deep snow on October 16, five days before our planned arrival at Base Camp.
The snow fell like wet wads of tissue paper while Martin and I sat drinking tea in the village of Dingboche. We later learned from the Ministry of Tourism that 85% of all the Himalayan expeditions failed that season, most having difficulty with deep snow.
On October 19 the sky finally cleared and we went to the village of Pang- boche to meet our loads and to hire yaks. The Italian south ridge expedition was already established at a Base Camp of 15,500 feet and our plan was to use their trail through the heavy snow the first day and then break trail alongside the yaks the second day to establish our camp. Just reaching the Italian Base Camp turned out to be a grueling day as the yaks stumbled their way through the deep snow, periodically dumping our loads down the hill and charging off the trail in search of a yak’s idea of greener pastures. Arriving late that evening, the yak herder-in-charge decided that he would not be able to go any farther the next day because of the deep snow. I sat down on our 1500 pounds of equipment and watched the yaks as they rambled off down the hillside, wondering how we were ever going to establish a Base Camp 2000 feet higher up the mountain.
To establish a Base Camp higher up without porters or yaks would have taken weeks of valuable time that we didn’t have so we opted to camp near the Italian Base Camp. A trail established for the Italians through the deep snow led up to their route and provided us with an easy approach to our Advance Base Camp site. Our three Sherpas, Ang Temba, Surcha and Tensing along with a friend from back home, Bob Morris, helped out carrying loads so that on the third day we were able to establish ourselves with all our gear at 17,600 feet.
This was my first view of our ridge other than Hooman’s black-and-white photographs. Using the telescope that Andy had brought, we tried to pick out possible bivouac ledges and debated methods of surmounting some of the difficult sections. A long low-angle ridge would bring us to the base of a rock buttress where the difficult climbing would start. Above the buttress a long continuous snow ridge extended to an upper rock face where we would then be able to reach the standard south-ridge route. At the foreshortened angle from which we were viewing, the ridge looked extremely steep.
After we left the luxury of following in the footsteps of the Italians, our route beyond the Advance Base Camp was hampered by the deep snow. Although we originally thought that we could fix ropes up the ridge from our position at Advance Base Camp, it was obvious that we would have to establish Camp I at the base of the buttress, before the actual climbing even started.
On October 30 we established Martin and Hooman at Camp I near the base of the buttress at 18,000 feet. By the following day they had fixed about five pitches, traversing steep snow to the left side of the ridge and avoiding what looked to be difficult rock sections on the ridge proper. Andy and I joined them and on the third day of climbing we topped out on the ridge-crest, following Martin as he led up through mashed potato-like snow. We all felt a sense of accomplishment at surmounting the first set of difficulties and that evening the air buzzed with optimism. Huddled together like a football team leading at the half, we planned our conspiracy for the next few days over boiled noodles and foiled packets of Lipton’s instant soup mix. Our decision was for the four of us to carry loads to the top of our fixed ropes where Hooman and I would establish Camp II at around 19,000 feet. Then, while Andy and Martin carried up a second load the following morning, Hooman and I would continue fixing ropes up the ridge.
The next day we returned to the top of the ridge with our loads where Martin pointed vaguely up the slope to a site he thought would make a good campsite. We tried chopping a platform, gave up and looked elsewhere, but without success. Returning to our original site we curled up on an icy ledge half the size of a living-room couch and spent the night wishing we were somewhere else. The next day was spent enlarging our couch to accommodate Andy and Martin who arrived about noon.
Throughout the climb Hooman, Martin and I took turns leading and the next day my number came up. Andy returned to Base Camp that morning due to an injury to his arm jümaring the previous day. The three of us headed up to fix the remaining 900 feet of rope we had hauled up from Base Camp. The climbing was gorgeous, some steep snow, a couple of rock pitches that had an uncanny resemblance to the Teton rock back home and then some more steep snow and ice. Climbing up the ridge I traversed back and forth in search of firmer snow and finally adopted Martin’s matador technique, trading in my specialized ice climbing tools for a couple of aluminum snowstakes. Using the longer snow- stakes I stabbed at the 65° slog and hoped for the best. An occasional ice rib and rock outcropping afforded adequate belay anchors and by the day’s end we had reached our goal and finished off our last coil of fixed rope.
Down to our last two climbing ropes we knew that our climbing style was about to change. Although we could have removed the ropes below us in order to continue fixing ropes up the ridge capsule-style, we decided that the time had come for us to climb continuously, alpine-style. We knew we had possibly 2500 feet of mountain ahead of us but our progress to this point encouraged us to pack five days’ worth of food, divide the gear between us and leave the security of the fixed ropes behind.
The increased weight of our packs made the climbing infinitely more difficult. Climbing only three pitches above where we had left our fixed ropes I began to wonder if we had made a mistake. Two days earlier we had looked up and seen the upper rock face with its two ramps leading to the regular route. At the time we had guessed that it would only take another day, possibly two, to reach the end of the snow ridge at the base of those ramps. We guessed wrong. Sure of ourselves that we would finish the ridge that day I looked up to find the view to our goal unchanged.
The next day we were determined to reach the end of the snow ridge. Wearing heavy packs, we pushed on with Martin in the lead. Martin seemed to grow stronger after every pitch and by the end of the day we reached the base of the rock face and slowly carved out a bivouac ledge at about 20,400 feet. Hanging from ice screws and a couple of marginal snow stakes, we spent a miserable night stacked together.
November 6 we left Camp IV (can we really call these marginal bivis camps?) and headed to the base of the “ramps.” The ramps turned out to be not really ramps at all but steep snow-and-ice chutes bordered by ugly-looking rock bands. Hooman led up a couple of these chutes and traversed left and back down to a rock outcrop in search of some decent anchors. Climbing steep ice dotted with rocky ledges, Hooman finished two more pitches and called down the good news, he had found the fixed ropes left by the Italians. We had finished our route and had finally connected with the regular south-ridge route.
Locating a large crevasse with a suitable sleeping ledge we bedded down for the night. The crevasse turned out to be the large crack across the upper snowfield that can be seen from the valley, the top of the “dablam.” The luxury of not having to “dig” into an exposed ledge along with the icy chandeliers that adorned our sleeping quarters inspired Martin to name the camp the Hotel María Cristina, a large fancy hotel located in his homeland. While slurping at our hot chocolate and pea soup we discussed our next day’s plans. Should we rest a day or should we go for the summit? Our exhaustion was nearly complete but the exhilaration of being so close to the summit counteracted its effects.
November 7. Our first camp on the west side of the mountain brought us light winds and no morning sun. Contemplating our position on the mountain, the climbing that had brought us this far and our limited food supplies there was no question that we would attempt the summit today. Leaving the Maria Cristina at nine A.M., we headed up the fixed ropes which ended two pitches up at the base of an exposed snow ridge. Following large steps in the snow which led up and out of view we suddenly gazed up and realized that we were very near the summit. Walking together to the broad summit plateau, I glanced at my watch. It was ten A.M.
The exhilaration of standing atop a Himalayan peak is difficult to describe. To the east we could see beyond the huge rock walls of Makalu to the faraway mountains of Sikkim. To the west was Tawoche, Cholatse, the small village of Pangboche and the Tengboche monastery. To the north was Lhotse, Lhotse Shar, Everest and the mountains of Tibet. Mountains in every direction as far as the eye could see! We took numerous photographs and stood enjoying the rare pleasure of a windless day at 22,350 feet.
Remembering that the top of a mountain is the halfway point, our eyes eventually turned from the summit views to the descent route, the south ridge. Fixed ropes brought us down quickly to the base of the famed “Yellow Tower” where we spent our first night in a tent since leaving Camp I. Below the Yellow Tower the fixed ropes from the Italian expedition had been removed and our descent became tedious and demanding. Unwilling to abandon gear, we carried 70-pound packs. I felt as if I were trying to walk with a tree tied to my waist. Eventually we set up our final rappel and reached non-technical ground where we stumbled down the now worn track to Base Camp.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Mahalangur Himal, Nepal.
New Route: Ama Dablam, 6812 meters, 22,350 feet, via a ridge in the East Face to the right of the south ridge; summit reached November 7, 1985 (Aprin, Harrington, Zabaleta).
Personnel: Hooman Aprin, leader, Randy Harrington, Andrew Kurtz, Americans, and Martin Zabaleta, Spanish.