American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Kangchenjunga's North Face

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  • Publication Year: 1989

Kangchenjunga’s North Face

Carlos Buhler

KANGCHENJUNGA’S NORTH FACE rises two vertical miles in one sweep of overlapping cliffs, rock faces and hanging glaciers. It is a masterpiece of nature’s architecture, designed to discourage climbers from attempting to reach the summit from this side. Although technically possible routes exist, every conceivable line at some point is exposed to serious rockfall, falling ice or avalanches. Any route from the north demands a careful look at trade-offs: logistical feasibility versus acceptable risk. When a British expedition made the first ascent in 1979, their accomplishment was clearly recognized as one of the most difficult and respected mountaineering challenges on an 8000-meter peak.

In 1984 I applied to Nepal’s Ministry of Tourism for a permit in 1988. I was looking for the extreme challenge that an ultralight team would confront on a large, technical Himalayan peak. This was emphasized the following year, 1985, when two American expeditions failed on the north ridge. In addition to the immense difficulties on the peak, both attempts were plagued by cerebral edema. One climber died, a second suffered severe amputations from frostbite and a third barely was rescued through the tremendous efforts of his teammates.

In 1986, I began the lengthy process of fund raising and organization. My teammates were outstanding individuals. Austrian Peter Habeler and Spanish Basque Martin Zabaleta had made Himalayan climbing a focal point of their lives. Like me, each of them had climbed Everest and had returned to the Himalaya numerous times to seek out new challenges and improve his skills. Our collective Himalayan experience played a key role in our success and ultimate survival on Kangchenjunga. Dr. Howard Donner, a physician well versed in high-altitude medicine, agreed to be our expedition doctor. I asked Lhakpa Dorje Sherpa to be our sirdar. Lhakpa was a man with whom I had shared many of my earlier Himalayan experiences. A tight bond of friendship and trust had grown between us during two expeditions together: Baruntse in 1980 and Makalu in 1984. We decided to include two high-altitude Sherpas in our team, in addition to a Sherpa cook and mailrunner. I felt comfortable, knowing that Lhakpa would be choosing the Sherpa members of the team. This critical selection is often not made carefully.

Ours was not the only expedition to Kangchenjunga in the 1988 premonsoon season. A Spanish Basque team had permission to try a similar route to ours and a 21-member Indian expedition was on the opposite southwest face. We had been in contact with the Basques and looked forward to sharing the north face with them; several had climbed with Martín and me on other expeditions.

Our 15-day approach to Base Camp went smoothly. As the approach to this area had been closed to all but climbing expeditions, the encroachment of Western civilization had been minimal and the villages were unchanged by modem tourism.

We established Base Camp on April 3 at Pang Pema, a tranquil, pastoral field alongside the Kangchenjunga Glacier. Over the next three weeks, the weather permitted only three constructive trips beyond this 5000-meter camp. During short good-weather spells, we placed Camps I and II at 5800 and 6400 meters. Towards the end of April, a ferocious storm confined us to Base Camp for six days. Late on the 26th, the weather finally cleared. Peter, Martin and I, accompanied by Nima and Dawa, our two Sherpa companions, set out for Camp I early the next morning. We wondered how long the good weather would last. On the 28th, we climbed through the dangerous ice cliffs and continued to Camp II. With the help of the Basques, who came up a day behind us, we spent April 29 and 30 climbing and fixing 300 meters of 7mm rope on the steep ice-and-rock flanks leading to the north ridge.

On May 1, we carried all our equipment for the next five days. We climbed and fixed the remaining 200-meter face and continued, unroped, up the exposed north ridge to sleep at 7150 meters. The next day, we fixed a final 100 meters through the rock step at 7300 meters and carried on to 7450 meters on the huge plateau below the summit pyramid. Nima and Dawa then descended to Camp II the same afternoon. That night there were signs that the good weather was ending. The winds that had been coming steadily from the east began to blow again from the southwest.

Nevertheless, at four A.M. on May 3, we left for the summit in frigid darkness. We reached the rock walls of the vast summit cone as dawn was breaking. Though together at first, each of us now climbed alone in a private world of struggle. I went through a tremendous range of emotions. At times I found myself elated to be so near the summit of such a huge mountain. Then I became utterly discouraged at the situation in front of me. I was frightened by the steepness, by the intense cold drilling into me and, most of all, by the descent that would have to follow. There seemed to be so many places that I could make a fatal mistake. Waves of anxiety swept over me. I could only break away from them when I pushed on with the intense activity of climbing. I passed a tattered, frozen-in rope that the 1980 Japanese expedition must have placed over the short rock steps. I recalled their placing 250 meters of line through the gully to safeguard their descent. I felt insecure and exposed. After the rock step I stopped and removed the 20-meter coil of 6mm line I had been carrying. It seemed absurd to lug it further as Martin and Peter were both above me. I did the same with the one spare mitten. I had to leave behind every ounce I could. Only water, a small piece of sausage and my short ice axe remained in my rucksack.

Peter called upon all his strength and set a fantastic pace. He reached the summit at 9:30 A.M. Martín and I were still four-and-a-half hours away. As I feared, at ten A.M. snow began to fall and visibility dwindled. We crossed paths with Peter at 10:30 while the snow fell steadily. All three of us discussed options on the steep ramps of snow. “Ahora o nunca!” we decided. Now or never! It was unlikely that Martin and I would ever be this close again.

We climbed the final delicate 100 meters of the west ridge in the growing storm. There was no view at all. The terrain was steep and unforgiving. We followed endless traverses around granite buttresses, up 50° snow slopes and into windy comers. The blowing snow nearly blinded us as it built up inside our goggles. At two P.M., I climbed over a broken, blocky step to the summit, too cold to feel elation. I took ten quick photographs at different apertures as Martín came up the last several meters. After 30 seconds, we started down. A halfburied oxygen bottle a few meters from the top reminded me of what I needed most.

We were desperate to get out of the wind that tore across from the south. As soon as we dropped below the ridge and onto the north face, I asked Martín to stop and help warm my feet. Then we staggered on. The descent from the summit to our tent at 7450 meters took us seven hours in the heavily falling snow.

At nine P.M., we caught sight of the lit-up dome of the tent through the swirling winds. In a few minutes we were pulling off our frozen boots between bouts of hacking coughs. Peter radioed to Base Camp of our arrival and helped us prepare a hot drink. The relief we felt was indescribable. But it was not to last long. All night it kept on snowing.

A meter of snow had fallen by the next morning when we resumed the descent. Laden with gear from the camp, we plowed across the broad, exhausting plateau. Where were the fixed ropes off the edge of the plateau? How could we get our bearings in the sea of white?

We were stunned when we got to the site of Camp III. Not a trace of tents, supplies, fuel, food! All had been swept away by avalanches. Too exhausted to continue, we waited out the night in the tent and sleeping bags we had carried down. Since setting off for the summit, we had hardly eaten a morsel. How much longer could we go on without fuel? Violent coughing spells doubled us up as we counted the hours until dawn.

At six A.M., leaving everything but film and cameras, we began the treacherous and terrifying descent over the snow-caked slabs of the north ridge. Traversing and down-climbing, we wove our way through unstable windslabs. Doubt and uncertainty dogged every step. We were at the mercy of the gods. We were asking too much.

After an eternity, we reached the fixed ropes leading down the icy flanks towards Camp II. Below them, we had to fight our way across hundreds of meters of knee-deep snow before the next blow. The well-stocked tents of Camp had also been swept away! Without recourse, we struggled down the dangerous slopes towards Camp I. On the glacier at 6000 meters we staggered only short distances before collapsing in the snow to regain strength. This was the most gruelling test of endurance any of us had ever experienced.

Lhapka met us just above Camp I with water and the news that Nima and Dawa had been seriously injured when their tent at Camp II had been swept 300 meters down the face by two consecutive snow slides on the night of May 3. Though they had survived the fall, they spent twelve hours fighting their way down without equipment, both with broken ribs. Dawa had suffered so severe a concussion that he had no realization that he was on a mountain and believed he was in a lowland village. He had not eaten or drunk substantially in forty hours. They were still in Camp I, unable to gather the strength to return to Base Camp.

On May 6, nine days after setting off from Base Camp, a weak and battered crew staggered into the cheering voices and comforting hugs of friends in Base Camp. The Basques had seen the storm coming on May 3 as they neared their final bivouac at 7450 meters and had descended to safety the same day. Although they made two further efforts, neither they nor the Indian expedition on the southwest side managed to reach the summit. Tragically, the deputy leader of the Indians died, supporting a bid for the top in late May.

We came away from our success with humility coupled with deep satisfaction. In an endeavor where boldness and commitment are sometimes highly rewarded, we asked ourselves to what extent could the hazards be ultimately controlled. How fine can we draw the line between achievement and risk? We must take a careful look at what motivates an individual when climbing a large mountain with a small, self-reliant team. Though willing to take risks, we must also be capable of turning back empty-handed. This commitment to self-discipline is, perhaps, the most difficult of all to sustain. It is towards this goal which we continue to strive.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Kangchenjunga Himal, Nepal.

Ascent: Kangchenjunga, 8586 meters, 28,168 feet, via the North Face; Summit reached on May 3, 1988 (Buhler, Habeler, Zabaleta).

Personnel: Carlos Buhler, Dr. Howard Donner, Americans; Peter Habeler, Austrian; Martín Zabaleta, Spanish Basque; Lhapka Dorje, Dawa Nuru and Ang Nima, Sherpas.

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