American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Kangtega's Northeast Buttress

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  • Publication Year: 1987

Kangtega’s Northeast Buttress

Jay Smith

MY OVERBOOTS WERE rapidly disintegrating before my eyes. No matter how I kicked and stomped, no warmth was generated to thaw the freezing Lincoln Logs where my toes were supposed to be.

“My goddamn toes are freezing! I won’t have them for another route if you don’t do something bloody quick.” But Wally was engaged in his own life-threatening battle, 130 feet out from his only piece of protection: a number-three wire lodged between a quartz crystal and a snow flake. The rope vibrated in space, the final frontier which he had no inclination to explore. But my words never reached him, lost in a barrage of snow and ice that exploded endlessly around Mark and me.

Mark had plastered himself against a towering snow mushroom, the last relatively sheltered spot before my exposed belay. Twenty feet from my stance, he was desperately trying to cram his six-foot-two frame under a ten-inch brim.

“Can I jümar?” was just audible from Craig below. Much verbal abuse and an unquestionable “No” were the response. We told Craig to sit tight but understood his impatience, having been in the same situation many times during the past week: shivering at a stance while the action above moved at a snail’s pace.

It was our seventh day on Kangtega’s northeast buttress and the summit seemed light-years away. How far were we from the summit plateau? It could be only a few nightmare pitches above. However, our limited view from the depths of the couloir was keeping us in the dark in more ways than one.

We had had to make a critical decision at the previous belay which Craig still occupied. The couloir we had been following since noon yesterday was the key to the summit. Its 1500-foot length had seemed to make a beautiful 65° straight shot to the top. However, the gully now forked, twisted and steepened with its walls closing in on us. The right branch continued directly above, but appeared blocked by overhanging rock headwalls, bordered by huge cotton-candy towers. Wally’s “premonition” that the hidden left fork was the line of least resistance was rapidly becoming more questionable.

The left fork curved out of view after 100 feet but it headed in the right direction: up. The climbing was again on plastic, blue ice, just as it had been for the last 650 feet. Full rope runouts led to whatever belay anchors were available. The passage above involved spectacular chimneying between a vertical rock wall and the overhanging ice cliff on its right margin. Wally had negotiated the comer with the enthusiasm of a Great Dane chasing a female in heat, but he was now desperately wallowing in the snow overhangs at the chimney’s top. I was hoping he would send down some encouragement from above, but all he sent down was more snow and ice with an occasional rock.

Our first day on the route had gone quite smoothly. We all soloed the easy snow slopes and short rock sections until a small roof and chimney forced us to tie in. Above, Mark and Craig began carving tent platforms on the arete proper while Wally and I started work on the first headwall: 250 feet of mixed free and aid climbing on excellent granite. Near dark, we descended and crawled into the tent for the night.

The second day we made slow progress after a late start, climbing only five pitches. Two were traverses that linked up weaknesses in the rock bands. We needed to get moving earlier in the morning. The sun left the face at noon and progress slowed in the afternoon’s deep freeze.

It took hours to melt even the most meager amount of water. Knowing the importance of fluid consumption, we had to start brewing at 3:30 A.M. By 6:30 we had exhausted our fuel ration with two tepid brews and a half cup of slightly saturated Wheat Hearts.

One team would swap leads while the other would get a leisurely start and then come up to the belay to moan about slow progress. As darkness came upon us, we would hack ice into the night until the tents were up. Then another three-hour brewing session would commence.

Days three, four and five were very much the same: excellent climbing on deep snow, rotten ice and superior rock. Once we three were hanging in a belay while Craig led onto the sidewall of the gully above. All we could see were the power strokes of his tools, his feet wildly kicking and the continuous river of snow pouring out from the canal he was digging. He finally gained what looked like a broad, easy snow slope. Why was he going so slowly? It looked nearly flat compared with what he had just climbed.

“How much rope?” he shouted.

“You’re almost out.”

“Tie another one on. I need fifty feet more.”

Soon he was at the fourth and final rock headwall and banged in three knife-blades for the belay. “Tomorrow we’ll gain the great couloir. It will be a cruise. We’ll be on top before we know it.” But things aren’t always what they seem. His “easy-angle” pitch turned out to be overhanging with the last sixty feet treading a dragon’s back. It was an impressive lead up a snow fin so thin and steep that you’d swear the wind would have blown it away years ago. Not only that, but it was home for the night. After hours of hacking, the tents still overhung the void.

Difficult mixed climbing on the final rock headwall consumed half the next day and brought us to the “Land of the Shrooms.”

Wally led another difficult mixed pitch in an attempt to traverse to the huge couloir. Yet all we were doing was weaving between towering conglomerates of whipped cream into which you sank until nothing was visible but a trough with a rope leading out. You had to climb the deep gullies that came and went between them.

He reluctantly belayed me up while carefully explaining the consequences of a fall. Suddenly, both my tools ripped. I started to pitch off backwards but my pack bumped the wall to my left and I somehow maintained my balance on my frontpoints. It was desperate with a pack, but the winding nature of the route and the unconsolidated snow did not allow the luxury of hauling.

Upon reaching his belay, I instantly saw why he had been so concerned. I began searching for a “real” anchor before we both departed from the mountainside. “How does it look up and right?” I asked.

“It drops off 3000 feet down the north face.”

“Oh!”

“How about traversing over to that ledge, that little crease in the mushroom?”

“O.K. I’ll check it out, but I need a better belay.”

“I’ve got this screw in. See?” and he pulled it out to show me.

With a little excavating I discovered a somewhat consolidated pillar two feet in diameter consisting of mostly oxygen-starved air. I wrapped an aider around it, clipped in and began a belly-crawl across to the “ledge.” Luckily, a singular patch of ice lay just beyond and slightly above the next overlap of snow. With two solid thunks of my tools, I cut my feet loose and cranked over the snow roof and onto the narrow fluting thirty feet above Wally. This was the only possible bivouac site.

I was back on the prow, perched on top of a shroom with the route above consisting of snow fins overhanging the north face. To the left, flutings dipped a hundred feet into the next gully before jutting back into the darkening sky. I peeked out over the edge to the right. An icy blast of spindrift flew up and tore at my face. The Hinku Glacier, miles below in the void, was still and lifeless. I began tunneling into the snow to find anything solid. Anything! Anything that even closely resembled a firm consistency. Twenty minutes later, I had two pickets equalized in the back of a four-foot cave. Still not trusting the anchors, I had Wally jümar off my waist.

We had a terrible time of it. The rope sliced into the mushroom, pouring a steady stream of snow into his face. Every time he moved, he created an even larger roof to overcome. Finally he carved a deep trough ending under the points of my crampons. By the time he arrived, it was dark. We immediately began hacking out a platform.

Craig and Mark 185 feet below had exhausted all possibilities for a bivy site. Craig seemed content just to sit out the night on his pack, but Mark would have nothing to do with it.

“Can we come up now?”

“Wait! Let me work on the anchors.” Fifteen minutes later, I had a third picket in and all three equalized. I was hesitant to allow them to trust it, but we had no choice. Down there they would freeze to death. “O.K. You can jümar.”

It wasn’t till morning that I heard they had both jümared on the rope together. Forty feet up, Craig’s headlamp battery kissed him goodbye; Mark’s crampon fell loose four times. With the protection removed, they spun wildly in space with tons of snow pouring down. They didn’t arrive until nearly ten o’clock, having been in the dark for almost four hours. Another hour was spent chipping a ledge and a second preparing a brew. This was their second night without a meal.

Craig mentioned rappelling off. I could understand his point of view. We had brought only enough food and fuel for six days, supposedly stretchable to ten. It was now the morning of the fifth and our remaining food could be carried in a one-quart ziplock. The fuel situation was even grimmer.

But there was no way that we were going to give up yet. In 1985 I had to turn back from a summit attempt on Mount Everest’s direct west ridge because of my partner’s failing oxygen equipment. Mark and Wally had similar Himalayan experiences in 1985. Wally was forced to abandon an attempt on Gangapuma’s north face due to deep snow, avalanche hazard and high winds, while Mark was nearly blown off Dhaulagiri by the jet stream. The three of us were dangerously determined to bag a Himalayan summit and the closest one was looming somewhere overhead. After a brief discussion, Craig grabbed the rope and put Mark on belay. Nothing more was ever said.

After an eternity, Wally completed the chimney pitch and we all came up to join him. I led one last wild section through more cream rolls, surmounting a three-foot roof with my arms driven in to the shoulders. We had completed the buttress and an easy-angled slope led to the summit plateau. By six o’clock we were all stamping platforms in deep powder only a few hundred feet below the summit. Everest, Lhotse and Makalu still bathed in the sun’s last rays. We downed our last meal, consisting of whatever was left in the comers of our food sack.

During the night the winds picked up and buffeted our little tents. By dawn our bags were soaked, but at least the winds appeared to be abating. We hadn’t bothered to scrape out last night’s pots and had to drink a half cup of a concoction of cocoa, shrimp, coffee and noodles. With that, we broke camp and waded through deep snow toward the summit.

After two hours of breaking trail alternately, we reached a point just short of the top where we could drop our packs and pick them up on the descent. Craig decided to call it quits. He felt it would be better to save what little energy he had left for the descent. We three kept on and a half hour later we were yelling and screaming on the wind-swept summit. Our cries of joy were heard a mile and a half away by my girlfriend Jo, who had been watching our progress for the last eight days.

We descended the southeast glacier in six hours and were back in Base Camp before dark, much to our surprise. We stuffed ourselves with crab hors d’oeuvre and other assorted goodies and indulged ourselves in our very adequate liquor supply. By eleven we stretched out with the pride of knowing we had completed the most demanding climb of our lives.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Khumbu Himalaya, Nepal.

New Route: Kangtega, 6779 meters or 22,241 feet, first ascent of the Northeast Buttress, first traverse of the mountain, alpine-style, October 22 to 29, 1986.

Personnel: Jay Smith, leader, Mark Hesse, Craig Reason, Paul (Wally) Teare.

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