American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The Northwest Face of Ama Dablam, Vertical Commitment in the Nepal Himalaya

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1997

The Northwest Face of Ama Dablam

Vertical commitment in the Nepal Himalaya

by Vanja Furlan, Planinska zveza Slovenije

translated by Stanko Klinar

I feel like crying as I watch Tomaz plowing toward the summit. The spell is broken when I find myself gasping for air, but returns when I recover. The cycle has been repeating itself ever since we reached the summit ridge.

“Just cry,” I keep telling myself. “You’ll spare yourself the trouble of pissing.”

A few meters below the summit Tomaz stops, turns around and waits. When I plod up to him, we take each other by the arm, stop for a while, and then slowly, arm in arm, climb onward. On the top we give each other a clumsy hug and thump each other on the rucksack. And then tears, tears again.…

I slide off my rucksack and gradually calm down, then pull out the walkie-talkie to make contact with Zvonko. In vain. We haven’t had any contact for two days. Time is getting short, so we’d better set to work taking our advertising shots for sponsors. First I take a picture of Tomaz, then we swap roles. I hunt for the cell phone, but while Tomaz labors to get a good vantage point for snapping me with Everest and Lhotse in the background I try in vain to produce the advertising smile. I coax myself into smiling by shouting into the phone: “Ma, it’s me, taking a leak.” It’s ridiculous enough to make us both laugh, and Tomaz gets his picture.

Now I become aware of our success. It’s like a wave of infinite satisfaction—satisfaction, not triumph. Still, the next moment I find it incredible, as if it were nothing but insubstantial dreams. Then I remember what Tomaz said when, the worst over, we emerged on the north ridge: “We’ve done it. Come what may, the face has been climbed.” That’s true. We’ve done it. Only—we haven’t quite finished the job yet.

Less than a year before, sometime in June, Zvonko, Tomaz and I decided that the three of us should launch an attempt on Ama Dablam. We agreed that the most important thing was to climb the face; the style was irrelevant.

“It makes no difference whether we climb it in alpine, Himalayan or Mediterranean style,” Tomaz said. Should the Kangchenjunga expedition be planned for the spring of 1996, Ama Dablam’s turn would be the next spring, and vice versa. But Kangch was canceled and Ama Dablam knocked at the door. Preparations were somewhat hindered by a variety of other obligations, the training reduced by injuries and bad weather, and the last two months completely taken up with the usual search for money. I left home with a rather bad feeling and dampened spirits.

We managed to leave Kathmandu incredibly soon, much sooner than on any previous expedition. Four days were enough to see to everything. On April 4 the helicopter took us (and 20 passengers, plus 400 kilos of our equipment) to Lukla. Our luggage was forwarded to Siangboche, a little air strip above Namche Bazaar, but, for the sake of acclimatization, we decided to cover the remaining distance on foot. At Namche Bazaar it was impossible to get porters and yaks, as the Everest expeditions had claimed all of them in the whole territory of Khumbu Himal. Even Chindi, our sirdar and cook, a native from these parts, was helpless. But in the end, the day of forced rest at Namche did us good.

Two days later we were received by the lama of the well-known Thyangboche monastery. We had requested the meeting primarily to please Chindi, but also out of curiosity. I explained that we meant to climb Ama Dablam and so were asking for his blessing. Each of us handed over an envelope with some money wrapped in a kata, a silk scarf that the Buddhists give someone on a special occasion—e.g., departure—in order to bring good fortune. The lama handed the envelopes to a monk, but draped the katas around our necks. In the meantime, tea was served. The lama did not speak much. He offered us hardly more than a peaceful glance, with an occasional, almost unnoticeable nod of his head, and kept his eyes closed. He picked up some red strings, blew into them for a while and muttered a prayer, then handed them over to us, saying that we should tie them around our necks. The sungdi, as the strings are called, were supposed to provide protection on the mountain, whether from the gods or other dangers, he didn’t say. We also had a small bag of rice, changne, which the lama blessed too, supposedly bestowing on it exceptional supernatural power. We should use it in any danger, especially if threatened by an avalanche. If the rice was strewn around the tent, the avalanche was supposed to either not come down at all or split apart, leaving the tent unscathed.

During the afternoon, as we approached the village of Dingboche, the mountain’s face gradually unveiled itself. Even though in the not-so-distant past I had spent a whole month at its foot and even made two attempts to climb it, I was again overwhelmed by its grandeur and steepness. My first impression was that trying to negotiate it in an alpine style was out of the question. Only when I had given it more thought did I realize that alpine style was our only chance. I felt a rising in my throat, which made me swallow several times. The awe induced by the wall overwhelmed us all.

At that time the Slovenian Ski Everest Expedition was engaged nearby in acclimatization training on Imja Tse, and the leader, Tone Skarja, sent us a note: “If you manage to do it, you’ll really be big shots. The whole Alpine Association of Slovenia is backing you, but do use your heads when you tackle this beautiful face. Cheers—and good luck!”

On April 11, one day after Zvonko’s 27th birthday, we set up Base Camp. In 1989, the splendor of a beautiful blue glacial lake in autumn had been almost beyond belief; now I was disappointed to find that it was virtually gone. All that remained was a puddle covered with ice that Chindi had to break if we wanted to get water. The yaks were unloaded and the tents pitched. The following day was dedicated to Base Camp chores, though, of course, we constantly trained the binoculars on the face while preparing for an acclimatization ascent of Imja Tse. A spot was fixed for the latrine, the open air dining room was built of stones, and a table and seats were similarly built in the kitchen tent. The prayer flags were strung up and the base consecrated.

During the following days we climbed Imja Tse (6180 m), spending the first night after our departure from Base Camp at 5400 meters. On April 14 we reached the summit, then spent one more night on a glacial plateau at 6000 meters.

Back in Base Camp we took a few days’ rest. The first night was enlivened by Tomaz, who happily fell asleep while listening to the Eagles: he had his walkman, complete with new batteries, connected to external speakers. Chindi, whose tent was only a couple of meters away from Tomaz’s, probably didn’t get a wink of sleep all night, or at least not until the batteries ran out, ending the music; but this was not before dawn.

The chief entertainment of the following day was stoning, a frequent pursuit on expeditions.

It’s practically the same game as bowls, only the plastic equipment is replaced with stones. Chindi, although stoning for the first time in his life, grasped the idea immediately and turned out to be an extremely talented stoner. He and Tomaz made up an invincible team; Zvonko and I scored very little.

The time came for us to do some proper work. A whole day was used to prepare the technical equipment. We decided to take one 55-meter 8.5-millimeter dynamic rope and one 50-meter 5.5- millimeter static rope. Eleven quickdraws, 20 different-sized pitons, ten ice screws, ten bolts, three Friends, a jumar, a deadman.… On the following day we prepared the rest of the equipment: clothes, tent, bivouac sack, sleeping bags, stove, food.… By the late afternoon of April 20 all the equipment was neatly arranged on a two-by-three meter area; I used a 20-millimeter lens to photograph it.

On April 21, Chindi and Zvonko helped us with our rucksacks. When we reached the glacier, we put on our Gore-tex suits, climbing harnesses and the climbing equipment, including crampons. We shouldered the heavy rucksacks, gave Chindi and Zvonko a farewell hug, and left. Two hours later we crossed the bergschrund.

Now the serious part started. For a short time at the beginning we went unroped, but very soon gave up the idea of soloing. It started snowing as I climbed the third, rather difficult, pitch along the serac. Within minutes the first avalanches started. I turned slightly left, out of the fall-line, and belayed. The snowfall became heavier and avalanches poured down continuously for the next two hours. Never before had I experienced anything like this. Tomaz did his climbing in impossible conditions: he couldn’t see anything, but just beat about blindly with his ice ax, gasping for breath in the dense snow. He certainly wasn’t in an enviable situation. My mind went back to Jannu, where I had experienced something similar, but in a milder form. In the end he reached me; on the belay stance the avalanches were somewhat weaker than down by the serac. Hunched up at the belay, we waited an hour and a half for the storm to pass, then continued over somewhat easier terrain by the serac and searched for a suitable place for the tent. We found it three rope lengths higher, sheltered by a small serac under the rockband. We were totally exhausted, but pitched the tent and crawled in. I had no appetite; I was so beaten I felt sick. Even the little tea I drank I threw up before falling asleep.

It continued snowing on the following day; the tent was totally buried. We had to support it from inside with our hands and bodies, or else it would have collapsed. Toward evening, as the snow gradually abated, we dug a passage into the open and started to free the tent. We moved it a few meters lower, to a safer place.

Because of the abundance of fresh snow, we decided to wait a day. During our third day on the mountain, the weather improved a little. The avalanches ceased and we started asking ourselves whether we had done right to remain by the serac. We decided to carry on the next day.

In the early morning of April 24, Everest was sheathed in a motionless lens-shaped cloud. The perfect stillness was like an ill omen. Tomaz led out on the first pitch, and when I followed him, it started snowing again. With avalanches soon to follow, we escaped back to the shelter of the serac. An hour later, when the weather improved, we started again. Two somewhat easier rope- lengths took us up to the rockband. The third pitch was steep, with brittle ice, and I managed only with difficulty; nor was it any easier for Tomaz, who led the fourth. It started snowing again and I found myself in a situation similar to what Tomaz experienced on the first day by the serac. After an hour and a half waiting, with avalanches rushing over us, we gave up and rapped down to the serac, pitched the tent and spent the night. Zvonko came on the air, saying that the weather forecast was bad. We decided to return to Base Camp.

On the fifth day we left the serac early. We took everything, equipment and food, leaving nothing behind. We soloed three easier rope-lengths, but along the serac we rappeled. In the meantime, it started snowing yet again. As we reached the bottom of the serac and started preparing the belay, a big piece broke off, followed by a hellish thunder. We clutched at the rock and pressed ourselves against it, waiting. Chunks of ice dashed down all around us; a smallish one hit my shoulder and helmet, while Tomaz had his goggles and a plastic box in the top of his rucksack smashed to pieces. We hurried down as fast as we could, crossed the bergschrund, coiled up the ropes and “swam” down the deep snow along the glacier in constant fear of avalanches. Zvonko came halfway up to meet us, bringing warm tea and helping us to carry the gear down to BC.

We spent April 26—the day Tomaz’s wife, Sergeja (at home, of course, thousands of kilometers away), gave birth to a son—drying and mending our equipment, all in glorious sunny weather. April 27 and 28 were dedicated to the equipment, too. We were fully aware that another spell of bad weather might make us stop and wait even longer than before during our ascent, so we decided to take food this time for ten days. The weight of the rucksacks grew to 25 or 30 kilograms. It was a good thing, after all, that we didn’t have scales.

Tuesday, April 30

We wake at three and eat our breakfast. Chindi makes a fire in the stupa. Before leaving, we walk around it, offering rice to the gods. The dawn, however, finds us at the end of the ridge. I curse the cloudy weather. I harness myself with the equipment, shoulder the rucksack, give Zvonko one more hug, and leave. Chindi and Tomaz are a few meters ahead by the side of glacier. My advance is slow—and no wonder, as the snow keeps collapsing beneath my 120-kilo weight.

Now and then I fall in chest deep. I would flare up, curse and swear, but it would be to no avail. In fact, it would only make matters worse. Tomaz is still in the heat of preparations, so I give Chindi a farewell hug and slowly make my way up the glacier. Soon Tomaz catches up. While crossing the bergschrund—the fourth time in my life—we notice that the thick dark clouds have disappeared.

We keep to the extreme left, as far away from the serac as possible. For the entire first pitch Tomaz finds only one ice screw, though he might have spared himself the effort; it is no good, and sits only in snow. But there is nothing better. The rope runs out, but he has no stance, and he is caught in vertical, snow-powdered, brittle rock. I’ve got no choice but to drop the belay and follow him. We climb simultaneously until, ten meters higher, Tomaz finds a suitable belay position. Just when he is driving in the first screw, a big piece of the serac next to him breaks off. We press ourselves against the face and wait to be swept down. One little piece would do. If one of us is knocked down, both of us go—no doubt whatsoever about that. But it doesn’t happen. Though the seracfall is great, our luck is even greater. Early in the afternoon we pitch the tent on the serac, take a rest, eat and sleep.

Wednesday, May 1

At midnight we get up, prepare a meal, pack our things. At half-past-three we’re off. Soon we reach the “Needle’s Eye,” the spot where our first attempt ended. I leave my rucksack on Tomaz’s stance and tackle a vertical ice curtain. An hour later, 55 meters higher up, I haul up my rucksack. The following pitch, which Tomaz tackles, is also vertical. As are the rest.…

At four in the afternoon we reach the overhanging cliff that blocks our access to the rockband. The ice equipment is packed back into the rucksack and the rock paraphernalia comes out. A few meters above the stance, while climbing freely, I cause a rucksack-sized piece of rock to come off and together, in splendid harmony, we fly down. The first piton pulls out. Five meters lower, Tomaz stops my flight; apart from the torn Gore-tex and frayed rope no damage has been done. O.K., then! I carry on, and late into the night.

Finally Tomaz lets me rap down. We make our supper and drink, level out a small uncomfortable ledge, and spend the night hanging rather than sitting.

Thursday, May 2

I jumar up, haul both rucksacks and watch as Tomaz removes the belay. A little below him the rope gets stuck. As he goes down to free it, our bag with all the ice equipment, which was sitting on the stance, takes French leave and disappears into the depths of the precipice. It contained all ten screws, the ice hook, the deadman, the Abalakov hooker, the drill and all the bolts. We give vent to our disappointment with a few four-letter words, then continue without further comment. While Tomaz negotiates the second technical pitch and I hang in my harness belaying—it takes ages, actually the whole morning—I gradually realize we can no longer retreat by the same route.

At four o’clock in the afternoon we reach the snow field. We make our lunch, drink, and then carry on. We have to drop down more than 50 meters. In the evening it takes us three hours’ digging to make a tolerable ledge in the hard ice. We again spend the night sitting—though this time, at least, in sleeping bags and bivouac sacks.

Friday, May 3

We allow ourselves an extended rest, cook, cat, drink, and enjoy the warm sun. At about four o’clock we find ourselves at the foot of a rock barrier that offers a short technical pitch. The rock is so loose that Tomaz simply pulls out the belay pitons by hand. At sunset we find ourselves on a snow ridge, then follow along a long traverse. Night: exhaustion, hard ice. Three times I slip with both feet, but manage to stop thanks to my equipment, even though the crampons are absolutely blunt in spite of my daily efforts to sharpen them. Tomaz is no better off. It is very late when we reach a crevasse where we can pitch the tent. Finally we can sleep comfortably again. We try to contact Zvonko but he does not come on the air. There must be something wrong with the stations.

Saturday, May 4

In the morning we do get contact, but very weak. Then nothing more. We must now pick our route through the rocks without Zvonko’s support. Suddenly we land in a couloir which takes us up to the north ridge.

“We’ve done it!” cries Tomaz.

Two days later—the seventh day after leaving BC and immediately after our last bivouac, at the foot of the southwest ridge—I produce my toothbrush from my rucksack, and, as my companion watches in astonishment, calmly brush my teeth, my pleasure all the greater for the surprise written across his face.

Summary of Statistics AREA: Nepal Himalaya

NEW ROUTE: The Stane Belak-Srauf Memorial Route (1650 meters, VI 5.7 AI5 A2+) on the northwest face of Ama Dablam, April 30 to May 4 (Vanja Furlan, Tomaz Humar)

PERSONNEL: Vanja Furlan, Tomaz Humar, Zvone Pozgaj, Chindi Sherpa

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