Slovene Kangchenjunga Expedition
Tone Škarja and Marko Prezelj, Planinska zveza Slovenije
THE OBJECTIVES OF OUR EXPEDITION were three-pronged. We hoped to ascend several of the summits of Kangchenjunga from the west primarily by already explored routes, we wanted to make the first ascent of the east face of Kumbhakarna (Jannu) East, but above all we wished to climb a new and difficult route on the southwest ridge of Kangchenjunga, alpine-style. We came close to achieving all three goals and also completed the second ascent of Talung by a new route. The success of our climbers is reflected by our being awarded the prestigious Piolet d’ Or, which is given to the most successful expedition of the year. Tragically, however, two of our number remain forever on Kangchenjunga’s frozen slopes.
Our expedition was composed of eleven Slovene men, a Slovene woman, a Croat man and two Polish women. We were assisted by a Tamang and three Sherpa high-altitude porters. After leaving Kathmandu on March 25, our first climbers arrived at Base Camp at Pache’s Grave below the western side of Kangchenjunga on April 12.
I shall first describe our success on the western flank of the great mountain. Viktor Grošelj and Stipe Božic established Camps I and II at 6200 and 6750 meters on April 15 and 20. On April 22, Marija Frantar, Uroš Rupar, Robert Držan, and Jože Rozman set up Camp III at 7250 meters. After a rest at Base Camp, Grošelj and Božic left Base Camp on April 25, intending to climb to the main summit of Kangchenjunga by the 1953 British route. They halted at Camp III during poor weather, awaiting Sherpa help, and finally established Camp IV at 7600 meters on April 30. On May 1, this pair followed the British route and reached the summit of Kangchenjunga Main at 1:25 P.M. This was Grošelj’s ninth 8000er. The weather turned bad and on the descent they missed Camp IV. They continued on and staggered down to Camp III at eleven P.M. Meanwhile, Rupar had left Camp III at ten PM. on April 30 and climbing through the night got to the summit of Kangchenjunga Central by the Polish route on May 1 at 10.40 A.M. He descended also in fog and falling snow to reach Camp III at 8:30 P.M., where he found Frantar and Rozman. I shall describe their sad tale later. The four summit climbers were back in Base Camp on May 2.
The second objective was the east face of Kumbakharna East. Vanja Furlan and Bojan Pockar acclimatized, helping with the stocking of camps on Kangchenjunga. On April 28, they left Base Camp and moved close to the bottom of Kumbhakama’s east face, where they spent the night. The next day, they crossed Kumbhakarna’s east glacier. At four P.M., they started up the wall at 5530 meters. By midnight, they had climbed 400 meters of 60° to 85° ice, UIAA Grade V rock and mixed climbing. They continued on through the night and at five A.M. reached the biggest sérac in the center of the face. The next 50 meters took them four hours to climb: two rope-lengths of VII, one of VII–, 90 ice and Al. There, at 6380 meters, they rested for six hours because of avalanches. They set out again at three P.M. and at eleven P.M. bivouacked at 6750 meters, having climbed one pitch of VII– and ice of 65° to 70°.
On May 1, they departed from their bivouac at eight A.M. At ten A.M., they left their bivouac equipment behind at 6900 meters to lighten their loads on 70 to 85° ice. Just below 7000 meters, they climbed in two hours the most difficult pitch: VII, 90° to 95° ice. The brittle ice was discouraging enough, but it began to snow furiously. This was their high point at 7050 meters, still 400 meters from the summit. The next 80 meters of rock were deluged with continuous avalanches. They waited there for nine hours, half sitting, half hanging on a tiny shelf. When it cleared a bit at eleven P.M., they rappelled 150 meters to their bivouac gear. Both got frostbitten fingers and toes. They were in the bivouac for eight hours and on the morning of May 2 decided to continue the descent. They were becoming seriously dehydrated and had had little to eat. Avalanches forced a halt at one P.M. but after three hours they took advantage of a quiet interlude between avalanches to escape to a snow cave in the sérac and a fourth bivouac. The next morning, in clearing weather, they climbed and rappelled down the rest of the face and finally reached Base Camp in the evening.
Prezelj continues: (Translation by Maja Košak Bucar.)
Kangchenjunga! At first it meant nothing to me. Now, it means a colossal heap of rocks and ice, which took a lot from me but gave me back even more.
An organized expedition seemed to provide the best solution. Andrej Štremfelj and I understood each other perfectly all the time. We had no worries over porters, food, Sherpas and other “minor” matters, which would have taken all our energy and nerves. All we had to be concerned with was the climbing. Thank you, Tone Škarja, for all your help, which sometimes seemed beyond reason.
Acclimatization was quick and pleasant. Two days before getting to Base Camp, we had climbed Boktoh in six hours, and a week later Talung, from a bivouac at 6600 meters, in only two days from Base Camp and back, a second ascent by a new route. Andrej, who had been suffering from a touch of flu, had to turn back 50 meters from the top, but I got there in a hurricane gale. This climb also served wonderfully as a reconnaissance for our main objective, the unclimbed southwest ridge of Kangchenjunga, which was in full view.
After five days of rest, repacking and uneasy thinking, we start early on the morning of April 26 with Damijan Meško and Tone Škarja who help us transport equipment to the beginning of the climb. We finally leave our friends and shoulder impossibly heavy loads. Soon we have to rope up. I climb a 35-meter- high vertical tongue of ice and haul my pack up. Andrej joins me quickly. The change then from ice to rock is a real treat. With difficulty, Andrej climbs to the first expanding flake, where he places a piton and takes his crampons off. It will go faster when we get to the cracks, I find myself thinking. I am cold and impatient. Finally, Andrej calls on me to climb. I don’t remove my crampons. Halfway up the pitch, I am ashamed of having urged Andrej to hurry on this extremely difficult pitch. I get help from the rope several times and join Andrej with due respect. We have spent three hours on this one pitch! After ten hours, having belayed only three pitches, we have climbed the first 650 meters of the wall, which we grade at VI, A1, with ice averaging from 60° to 90°. It clouds up and starts to snow. Despite our original plan to climb all night, we set up a bivouac at 6200 meters. Thunder and lightning, unusual in these parts, confirm our decision.
In the morning only the sun could invite us out of the tent. New snow had made the climbing more difficult, covering steep, smooth rock slabs. Not being able to move up the ridge itself, we switch onto its eastern side. In turn, we search for a better route. After a lot of difficulty, we reach “easier” ground. The points of our crampons find meager support on the slabs and we stick ice axes into minor cracks. We manage to regain the crest of the ridge and easier going. We proceed more quickly until the evening. Only in the dark, after eleven hours of climbing, do we find a sufficiently safe place at 7250 meters in the bottom of a crevasse for a bivouac.
The furious winds the next morning nearly blow away my enthusiasm for going on. We reach the shallow col between the hogback peak and the main ridge. Andrej leads ahead while I seek shelter from the blast. He is back soon. There is no way to continue along the ridge; the ridge is too corniced and the winds of hurricane strength. We could traverse along the Great Shelf towards the left to Camp III on the southwest face. We move along the shelf toward an alternative we had spotted from Base Camp. I try as hard as I can to catch up to Andrej so that I can suggest completing the traverse to Camp III. When I reach him, we abandon the plan to continue up the normal route. From the Great Shelf, we ascend a couloir leading back to the ridge crest, where we make our third bivouac at 7600 meters.
While looking for the bivouac, we notice a rock ramp, leading over an overhang. In the morning we find the ramp is easier than we had expected and there are ways around the overhangs. We emerge on snow slopes under the last shoulder of the rib, where we bivouac at 7900 meters after only seven hours of climbing. To our far left, we spot Russian fixed rope.
In the morning, we decide to leave the tent and unnecessary equipment to pick up on the way down. Surprisingly fast, we reach the ridge, but we cannot stay on the crest and continue along on the east side, already lit by the sun. I belay Andrej as he crosses a potential avalanche section. We plow through deep snow, feeling hot despite being at 8000 meters. At 8100 meters, we join the Russian route, helped in places by the remains of their fixed ropes. The climbing is demanding until we reach the junction of the Russian and Polish routes 250 meters below the summit of Kangchenjunga South. Andrej goes ahead. When I reach a snowfield, just below the summit, I see him again. I can almost touch it but have to fight back a strange wish to quit and turn back. Somehow, at 4:45 P.M., I reach the top!
The top! The top of what? Dead, cold rocks, chained together by ice. The only joy is the end of a tiresome climb. For a moment, I have a feeling of relaxation; and then emptiness. We take pictures. We talk, but I don’t know about what. Slowly, we set out for a descent of the Polish route. Andrej cuts some of the old fixed rope to take along for rappels. I am in no particular hurry and enjoy the solitude around me. The sunset is magnificent.
Soon it is black night. By chance or by luck, we find old fixed ropes. These and not being able to see where we are going speed us on our way. We call Uroš in Camp III on the radio. He urges us to follow a steep couloir to the left, but the batteries are so worn out that we can’t ask him if he means to our left or his. At 7900 meters, we leave the Polish route and descend the couloir between the central and south summits. I drop my ice axe. It falls down a steep gully. Luckily, I find it where it stuck just before pitching over into the void. We now have to climb down since we have no rope left to rappel. Our only headlamp gives no more light. At the end of the rock, we find hard ice.
Exhausted, I sit down on a snow ledge and watch Andrej. Slowly, I try to follow. We have no hope of finding our bivouac equipment. I know I must not sit down, but here I sit and watch Andrej disappear. Behind a ridge I see five red tents. I close my eyes and they are still there. Hallucinations! I drag myself over the ridge. There I see Andrej, who is resting often too. I stumble after him. I lost the trail long ago as well as any feeling of danger or fear. Then I’m sure I see Tone and Damijan, waiting for us with tea and beer. I can even smell those drinks. I try to decide which I prefer. Then I realize it is again an hallucination. I shake my head and spot a tent. But this time it is for real. I climb in and fall fast asleep. After twenty hours of continuous exertion, my fondest dream was for that warm sleeping bag.
Andrej made it to Base Camp the next day. I took another one. After a day of rest, we have to face the tragic truth that Jože and Marija have left us forever.
How can I learn from what happened to them if in a year’s time I’ll want to hear the gusting of wind, the thunder of avalanches, the hissing of drifting snow, the crackling of ice in an icefall, the striking of crampons onto the slope, the dripping of water into a crevasse? Am I any wiser? There is so much that I experienced that I don’t understand: daring, desire, fear, climbing, wind, snow, doubts, hope, risks, uncertainty, the summit, the moment of freedom, descent, relaxation, falling, hallucinations, sleep, dreams about Marija and Jože, stumbling in the mist, joy, anxiety, death, indifference, confusion, sadness. Why all this chaos of thoughts? What did Andrej and I achieve in those six days? Only a line on a photograph of the mountain. But all this I experienced so intensely that I will never be able to forget or repeat.
Marija Frantar and Jože Rozman left Base Camp early on April 30 and climbed to Camp II. On May 1, they continued on to Camp III, taking only one bottle of oxygen with them; Marija wanted to climb Kangchenjunga without bottled oxygen. They spent the night with Rupar, Grošelj and Božic. On the 2nd, they climbed to Camp IV, hoping to set out for the summit at ten PM. We don’t know just when they left because they did not use their radio before they got to the high point.
May 3 was the coldest and windiest day of the expedition. The pair began at a fast pace, but their progress became slower hour by hour. The stormy west wind picked up speed all day. At three P.M., they finally called Base Camp on the radio and reported that they were 150 meters from the main summit. They were weak, their oxygen bottle was empty and they were in disagreement about continuing. Marija wanted to go on, but Jože was for descent. At Base Camp, we recommended that they return. Ten minutes later, they decided to descend. Two hours later, at six P.M., they called with tired voices and were having difficulty handling the walkie-talkies. The last radio contact was at seven P.M. when we heard broken voices saying that they didn’t know where they were or where the route down was. The weather was clear but the wind still strong. They obviously must have fallen to their deaths from exhaustion.
Wanda Rutkiewicz found Jože Rozman’s body at 7400 meters on May 4. On May 5, Robert Držan and Dare Juhant found Marija Frantar’s body at 7500 meters. They buried both dear dead friends in a big crevasse. The accident stopped all further climbing activity.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Kangchenjunga Himal, Nepal.
Ascents: Boktoh East, 6142 meters, 20,150 feet, April 10, 1991 (Štremfelj, Prezelj, Rupar).
Talung, 7349 meters, 24,112 feet, Second Ascent via a new route, the West Face, April 20 (Prezelj).
Kangchenjunga South, 8476 meters, 27,809 feet, via new route, Southwest Ridge, April 30, 1991 (Štremfelj, Prezelj).
Kangchenjunga Central, 8482 meters, 27,828 feet, via Polish Route, May 1, 1991 (Rupar).
Kangchenjunga Main, 8586 meters, 28,170 feet, via First-Ascent Route, (Grošelj, Božic).
Attempt: Kumbhakarna (Jannu) East, 7468 meters, 24,502 feet, via East Face, to 7050 meters, May, 1991 (Furlan, Pockar).
Personnel: Tone Škarja, leader, Jože Rozman, Robert Držan, Marija Frantar (f), Bojan Pockar, Vanja Furlan, Marko Prezelj, Uroš Rupar, Dare Jahant, Viktor Grošelj, Andrej Štremfelj, Damijan Meško, Slovenes) Stipe Božic, Croat; Wanda Rutkiewicz (f) and Ewa Panejko-Pankiewicz (f), Poles.