American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Pakistan, Nanga Parbat, Rupal Face, Attempt on the 1970 Messner Route

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1989

NangaParbat, RupalFace, Attempt on the 1970 Messner Route. Our climbers were Canadians Kevin Doyle, Ward Robinson and Barry Blanchard and I from the USA. My first impression of the face from Base Camp was of its similarity to the Eigerwand. Throughout the day the wall changes from malevolence to innocence and back. Even so, we were confident although every attempt since the first ascent of the route in 1970 has been repelled. Technically hard, it seemed a perfect face for alpine-style. We trained by climbing new routes: Shigeri (6500 meters) via its north face with two unplanned bivouacs by the other three and Laila (6000 meters) via the south face and east ridge by me solo. Three of us climbed to 7000 meters on the Schell route, planning to descend that way because it is much easier than the Messner route. We started up the face on July 9 with five days’ food, eight days’ fuel, two ropes, 8 ice screws, 12 pitons, six wired nuts, 26 carabiners and 30 sewn runners. After 1000 meters of easy terrain and our first bivouac beneath the Wieland Rocks, the climbing became surprisingly hard, definitely the place for two ice tools. We climbed unroped up to the base of the Welzenbach Couloir at 6400 meters. Because of serious rockfall in the gully, we passed it on the right over steep mixed ground. We roped into two teams. In 2½ days we had gained 3170 meters and were forced to rest a half day on July 12. To avoid a windslab on the Merkl Icefield, we climbed the sérac barrier directly. Without a pack Blanchard led a full 40-meter pitch of 90° to 95° ice. I followed with both packs. We climbed only 300 meters that day because of knee-deep, heavy snow. Despite threatening weather, we climbed the Merkl Gully, where previous attempts had been stopped either by rockfall or avalanches. The most difficult climbing starts at 7300 meters. We climbed hard, brittle 60° to 90° ice. By two RM., we had reached 7700 meters with only easy slopes between us and the 8125-meter summit. As we relaxed, the sky erupted with lightning. A 100-mph wind shot down the gully, driving us to our knees. As soon as it began to snow, avalanches funneled from the bowls above. There was not enough snow to dig a cave and no sheltered stances. Robinson was altitude sick and hypothermic, passing in and out of consciousness. We had to go down. During the second rappel, I was almost flipped upside down by an avalanche. The avalanches got worse. We four were held onto the 70° ice only by a single ice screw. It was almost impossible to get back onto our feet. Between waves of snow, we managed four more rappels. Robinson was in extremely bad shape. After five hours, we reached the comparative safety of the Merkl Icefield, where we chopped a ledge and put Robinson into his sleeping bag. Doyle gave him hot drinks while Blanchard and I climbed down to our previous night’s bivouac at 7000 meters, reaching it at eleven RM. I dropped one of our tents and began to dig a snow cave. By the time it was finished, Robinson and Doyle arrived. The following morning, it was still storming. We prepared the gear to retreat only to discover that our two ropes were gone, dropped the night before. We climbed down to 6700 meters, hoping to cut enough fixed line from the last expedition in 1984 in order to rappel. At the top of the Welzenbach Couloir, we discovered a Japanese pack clipped to the fixed ropes. It had not only chocolate bars but 12 ice screws, 60 pitons and two brand new 50-meter ropes! It took another day and a half to get off the face. The storm lasted for another ten days. On July 25 we set out again with even more minimal packs. I soloed every pitch. The others roped up for one and the ropes were promptly chopped by rockfall. We climbed from 3500 meters to 7300 meters in 2½ days. Robinson retreated from 7000 meters, after becoming altitude sick again. The rest of us turned back as clouds obscured the summit and we did not have the courage to go up the Merkl Gully with a storm brewing. We descended to Base Camp in 13 hours.

Marc Francis Twight

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