American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Khumbhakarna—My Way

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1990

Kumbhakarna—My Way

Tomo Cesen, Planinska Zveza Slovenije, Yugoslavia

FOR A YEAR, I debated with myself whether to try to climb Kumbhakarna solo. At one time, 1 spent an entire fortnight thinking of nothing else. After all, its direct north face was considered one of the most difficult in the world. Today, of course, I am delighted that I eventually went and I do not regret my decision to climb the face alone.

The north face of Kumbhakarna was first reconnoitered by New Zealanders in 1975. (At that time, the peak was known by climbers as Jannu, although it appears that the name has no local usage. The present official name is used throughout this article.) In 1982, a strong French team headed by Pierre Beghin spent two months on the face, eventually changing to the northeast ridge, but not climbing to the summit. In his account in tht American Alpine Journal, 1983 on page 219, he states, “It was the most moving experience I had ever had in the Himalaya because of the harshness of the wall. None of us had ever seen such a cold, steep face. The last 3000 feet were like the Cima Ovest’s north face in the Dolomites with much overhanging in the last 1500 feet. When we discovered how smooth this part of the face was, we headed for the northeast ridge.” The latter route was eventually climbed by Japanese in 1986. This Japanese route was ascended again in October, 1987, first by Netherlanders, two of whom were killed on the descent, and then by Frenchmen Beghin and Erik Decamp.

The season last winter was for me perfect preparation of such difficult Himalayan climbing, not so much physically as psychologically, a very important aspect. Taxing solo winter ascents, such as the Pilier Rouge on Mont Blanc, the north faces of the Eiger, the Matterhorn and the Grandes Jorasses and the south face of the Marmolada, convinced me that I was psychologically strong enough for a solo ascent amongst the Himalayan giants. With some success, I tried to keep from thinking about Kumbakharna, but as I packed my equipment two days before my departure, from then on, like it or not, my thoughts always dwelt on the climb.

Dr. Jani Kokalj, who accompanied me to the mountain almost by chance, was a good companion. Along with the liaison officer and Chindi, the cook, who also served as sirdar, we made a great team. We established Base Camp on April 22 at 4600 meters at the edge of the Kumbhakarna Glacier. The following day and for several days after, Jani and I went to the foot of the face and other good viewpoints. This was also essential for acclimatization. The upper part of the north face was clearly visible from Base Camp, but the lower part presented a puzzle which I wanted to solve as soon as possible. The beginning of the route did not look encouraging. The face started with an icefall, which from our side of the glacier looked like heaped-up ice cubes, threatening to tumble down at any moment. But I was even more interested in the upper part of Kumbhakarna’s upper face: ice gullies, a smooth overhanging granite wall, interspersed with giant roofs. A fantastic sight! I could see that I needed a different strategy from my original one on the upper face. Before leaving home, I knew I could not plan an exact route. Although the threat of huge avalanches and falling séracs was not unacceptably great, whistling blocks of ice and rocks were proof that the face was extremely dangerous. Most of this falling ammunition ended in the funnel at the bottom of the middle of the face. That was why I knew that it was essential to make that part of the climb during the night when much was frozen in place.

Dawn on April 27 was cloudy. During lunch, the sun’s rays eventually pierced the clouds. How quickly one’s mood can change! Chindi was a master of his craft. I decided to take along some of his cheese custards as well as crackers, tins of fish and drinks. Around early afternoon, I left with Jani, who accompanied me to the start of the glacier. My fantastic mood matched the weather.

Alone on the glacier, I felt exhilarated, a good sign, and I was already in complete control of my feelings. I hung pitons and a spare ice-axe blade on my harness, put crampons on my feet and an ice axe in each hand. I had a rope and, of course, a helmet. My rucksack contained only spare clothing, gloves, glasses, food, drink, a sleeping bag and a bivouac sack. Truly, not much gear. To climb the 9250-foot-high north face of Kumbhakarna thus, was, apart from everything else, a great challenge.

After 200 meters of steep, initial warming up, I came to the first 10- meter-high vertical ice. Four hours later, at dusk, the lower part of the face was behind me and I rested for ten minutes. The valley below was already dark, but up here I could see satisfactorily despite the late hour. I kept on climbing in the night. I was thankful that the falling rock and ice were easing off. Climbing this section in the day would have been suicide, but the night represented safety. There were 200 meters, perhaps a little more of cramponing 70° to 80° ice up a steep couloir as well as some difficult rock.

The new day broke when I reached the top of the icefield. I had to make a right turn to the next icefield, which was separated from the last one by the first really problematic part of the route. Very steep ice and granite slabs alternated. I oriented myself on the séracs at the beginning of the middle icefield. There was no possibility for protection in the crackless rock. I was glad to reach the top of the steep ice gully that led to the less steep icefield below some huge séracs. I rested.

A short rock step separated me from the final part of the face. Ice, rock, more ice, always followed by granite slabs. The exit from this section was something special. A gently sloping slab blocked the way to the last icefield before the vertical exit from the face. Without crampons and gloves and some 6000 meters lower, this might have been easy, but here it was quite a different matter. I couldn’t remove my crampons and plastic double boots are hardly suitable for delicate friction climbing. I leaned unhappily with my hands on the slab and my crampons in the thin ice below. I clawed with an ice axe at some small ice crystals. Eventually I felt enormous relief when my axe at last hit solid ice. This section was definitely not for the faint-hearted!

What was ahead, though, deserves a particular description. The face above 7000 meters called for all my technique, but even more for psychological strength. I stared upward at an unbelievable scene. Only there, at 7000 meters, did I realize what lay in store. But there was no way back. A vertical gully was filled with thin ice, sometimes interrupted by a few meters of rock. The rock appeared good, although it was clear that rock climbing with crampons would be very difficult. The feeling of uncertainty, which gives climbing a peculiar attraction and which I need from time to time, suddenly vanished. In these moments of utmost concentration, the world around you no longer exists. You have to use to the limit all your capabilities, strength and a good sense of balance.

The nearly vertical slabs were covered with ice, no more than ten centimeters (four inches) thick. The consistently 80° to 90° slabs were on an average 30 to 40 meters high. My suffering was both psychological and physical. Due to the thin air, I couldn’t climb these without resting, but resting, hanging on a perilously inserted ice axe, was anything but pleasant. There were at least ten such slabs. There were some easier options, but they were not visible from below. I could only guess at the best route upward. I needed to use aid pitons on four occasions as the rock was too difficult to climb free with my crampons on. There was no place to remove them or it would have been too dangerous. Fortunately, some cracks were wide enough for me to jam in my foot, relax the tension on my arms and get a short rest.

At the end of the rock, there was always ice again, hard, black, green, sometimes rotten, but almost always steep. On one occasion, I had to perform a pendulum; a narrow ice gully lost itself in granite above, up which there was no way. Vertical rock rose above, left and right. I noticed a tiny crack above me; I climbed slowly almost to the top of the ice tongue with great care because it could easily have broken off. 1 hammered in a piton, threaded the rope, descended a little and swung to the side. Thus, 1 reached the continuation of the ice gully to the left.

I was slowly approaching the ridge, although there were extremely difficult sections right up to the crest. Suddenly I almost stumbled into the soft snow on the ridge. The summit of Kumbhakama was very close, and the ridge leading to it presented no technical difficulties. I felt drained; I’d had enough of this kind of torture. I reached the summit just after 3:30 P.M. in deteriorating weather. To the south was a sea of gray clouds.

The usual afternoon worsening of weather would prevail that day too. For that reason, I wanted to descend the Japanese route as far as was possible. I had to rappel to reach the upper icefield of the Japanese route. Because the weather began to resemble a proper storm, there was no point in sitting it out in the middle of a 55° to 60° icefield. Heavy snowfall and strong, cold winds forced me into temporary shelter in a crevasse among the séracs.

The seemingly endless bivouac was marked by chattering teeth, quivering muscles, looking at my watch and hoping the last few days’ weather pattern would prevail. With howling winds sweeping snowflakes in every direction, fog and darkness, I felt it lasted far too long. In the middle of the night, the storm finally abated. I continued down immediately. From the crevasse I descended among the séracs for 100 meters. It was not the right way and led to a 15-meter-high vertical ice cliff. Not feeling like retracing my steps, I decided to rappel. At the edge of the sérac I chiseled an ice mushroom with my ice axe and fixed the rope with a sling. Although this maneuver appears close to madness to the uninitiated, such an ice mushroom holds weight without danger.

The ice slopes leading to the lower séracs sometimes surprised me with black ice. During the day, I could have sought a better route, but in the darkness I descended the most direct line. Among the lower séracs I zigzagged left and right to stay among them for as long as possible and on the final section to the plateau I rappelled a few more times. The icefall in the jumbled mess of the Kumbhakarna Glacier was a mere formality. I chose a much easier route than for my ascent, albeit a more dangerous one. I told myself that if the séracs hadn’t collapsed for a whole week, they’d last another hour or two.

And finally it was all over. When there is no more danger and the way ahead is easier, concentration falls. My walk across the glacier resembled the staggering of a drunk returning from a night out. Halfway to Base Camp, Jani came toward me with a broad smile on his face. It was wonderful to see another human, especially one who had kept his fingers crossed through my climb. It took me five hours to reach Base Camp from the foot of the face, although it normally would have taken two. I was exhausted. After great effort on three days and with very little food, my stomach was not prepared for a feast. Only liquids went down easily. That afternoon we drank a lot.

Some people thought that the north face of Kumbhakarna could not be climbed in the way I had chosen. I did not agree and felt that I would succeed. For me personally it is important that matters in which I believe so much I must resolve in my own way. And Kumbhakarna is only a part of what I believe in.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Kangchenjunga Himal, Nepal.

New Route: Kumbhakarna (Jannu), 7710 meters, 25,294 feet, via the direct North Face, April 27 to 29, 1989 (Tomo Cesen, solo); the ascent took 23½ hours; the descent took 18 hours.

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