Shivling’s East Ridge
Light is right: A rapid alpine-style second ascent of a Garhwal testpiece by Mark Richey
Swinging in space 7,000 feet above the Tapovan meadows, I reached down and touched my leg. It felt as if I had taken a full swing from a baseball bat. I thought for certain it was broken. From the belay, John shouted up, “Are you OK?”
“No,” I replied. From where I hung on the Final prow of Shivling’s steep headwall, I could see the entire ridge snaking its way down through clouds to the valley floor.
Five days before, my partner, John Bouchard, and I had set off to climb the technical east ridge of Shivling (21,467 feet) in India’s Garhwal Himalaya. It had been climbed once before, in 1981, by the strong international team of Doug Scott, Greg Child, Georges Bettembourg, and Rick White. They spent 13 days on the route, climbing it capsule style in a superb yet epic journey that included exploding gas cylinders, tents on fire, running out of food, and finally Child and White’s death-defying fall on the descent. In the years that followed, many attempts had been made, but no one had been able to get past the ominous double-corniced knife-edge ridge three-quarters of the way up the route.
Our plan was to go light and fast. We took only the clothing and equipment we could carry in our packs, six days of food and fuel, two ropes, a tiny tent, and a light rack. We carefully formed a strategy of where we would need to be each day in order to reach the summit in our allotted time. If we failed to reach these points, or if bad weather moved in, we would be forced to retreat. Given the long traversing nature of sections of the climb, a “blitz” approach appeared to us to be the only way to climb the ridge.
On September 17, as the last of the monsoons faded, we left Tapovan Base Camp and headed up the ridge for the First time. On the First day we climbed 10 horizontal pitches and gained 300 vertical feet. The climbing was never extreme, but required awkward traverses and lowering around and over the many gendarmes.
That evening, snug in our Bibler tent on a tiny platform, we scanned the monstrous ridge. We imagined ourselves as tiny specks negotiating the soaring granite towers high above. It snowed during the night, but dawn brought cloudless, blue skies. We moved quickly in the warm morning sun and completed a sharp-edged section by noon, arriving at a section known as “the Helmet.” By free climbing several steep pitches, we made quick work of the Helmet and reached the pillar proper for our second bivouac. We were right on schedule. Again the bivouac was small, but adequate.
Finally, and much to our relief, we were on vertical terrain. Now the leader could climb without a pack, which he would haul while the second jumared with a heavier load. One of us led all day; the other led the next. We joked that the leader had the day off—jumaring at 20,000 feet was grueling work.
The 2,000-foot pillar offered superb crack climbing on perfect granite. John led First, mostly free climbing up to the base of a smooth slab split by an offwidth and a scary looking chimney. Both were glazed with ice. With nothing larger than a number three Friend, he disappeared into the chimney. After a 40-foot runout he emerged onto a good ledge and a belay. We managed six more pitches and by nightfall found ourselves chopping out and shoring up a narrow ledge of snow for our third bivouac, halfway up the pillar. A good portion of the tent hung precariously over the void. Again it snowed at night.
The next day was more of the same: excellent crack climbing, mostly free to 5.10, that we climbed in our mountain boots. A few pitches from the top of the pillar, the cracks and comers we were following became smeared with ice. In the lead, I switched to crampons. We had prepared extensively for this kind of climbing with over 40 days of cramponing up our local rock climbs in full winter conditions, and by 2 p.m. we both stood on top of the pillar.
Ahead loomed the notorious knife-edge. Overhanging cornices clung to the delicate ridge and formed fantastic shapes. We threaded our way around them, at times punching through the soft snow for a dizzying view of Tapovan far below.
One-third of the way across the ridge, we discovered a three-foot by ten-foot flat ledge with an overhanging rock wall above. Although we could have climbed for another hour or two, we couldn’t pass up the luxurious camp. That night, for the first time, it did not snow. Our optimism for the summit was irrepressible.
The morning sun hit the ridge early, making it so warm we climbed in our long underwear. John led off the platform to where a solitary metal rung etrier swayed in the breeze. It had been left by the first ascent party; “Hurry up,” it seemed to say. I imagined their circumstances: already nine days on the route, battered by storm, nearly out of food, starting to leave things behind.
The section of the ridge we were on was spectacular; the knife-edge was interrupted by two vertical pitch-long steps of rock. John aided up the first step and burrowed through deep snow to find anchors at the top. We kept the pitches short to communicate. By noon we had climbed both steps and stood at the base of the headwall. It was our fifth day on the route; we had climbed over 40 technical pitches.
As the sun dipped over the ridge and the wind picked up, I belayed John with one hand and frantically tried to get into my climbing suit. Three steep rock pitches involving some very loose flakes led to a series of snow-covered ramps that diagonaled up and right to the very prow of the ridge. It was dark as we crawled into our tent, which sat half-on, half-off a sloping ledge. We fired up our last gas cartridge, ate our remaining food, and pondered how utterly committed to the summit we were. Even in a storm, it would be easier to summit and go down the west ridge than to attempt descending and traversing the way we had come. I was so anxious to get moving I didn’t sleep at all.
Clear skies greeted us once again in the morning, but a cold, steady wind blew from the north. Above our bivy lay the steepest part of the headwall. Mixing aid and free climbing, I worked up sometimes-overhanging comers for four pitches to a belay stance 30 feet below the lip of the headwall and the beginning of the summit snow ridge.
“We’ll be on top by noon,” I yelled down to John, who had already begun jumaring. I hauled up my pack, now light without food, fuel, and the pitons we had lost. Things had been moving so smoothly, it seemed nothing could go wrong.… I left the belay and nailed a short outside
corner below a small stance covered in snow. John gave me slack as I stretched the rope to a final piton. Just as he did this, a small hold I was using for balance broke away.
I sailed over backward for eight feet and slammed thigh-first into a large spike of rock, then bounced out over an overhang, writhing in pain. I looked over at the horrified expression on John's face and felt ill. Slowly I tested the leg. It moved; amazingly, it wasn’t broken. Fueled by a burst of adrenaline, I flew back up the pitch and secured the ropes at the belay. John took over the lead, climbing four or five pitches of steep Andean-like snow to the summit.
On top we were rewarded with a magnificent view as the afternoon clouds parted and the wind stilled. As we sat on the summit, we were overcome with a strange emotional cocktail: elation at having made our climb, disappointment in that there was nothing left to climb, and dread over the long descent down the west ridge. We left the summit shortly, intent on reaching the glacier that day, for I feared my leg might swell up that night and make descent impossible.
We were amazed at the extremely hazardous nature of the west ridge, the most-often climbed route on Shivling. The whole lower section follows a line of gullies and slopes directly beneath a wall of huge seracs that appear to carve off quite regularly. Fortunately, we were only going down it.
We reached the glacier camp by headlamp and collapsed inside our tent. The next morning my leg felt almost fine, although later the entire backside would turn black and blue. We shouldered our packs and chatted happily down the trail to Tapovan. In retrospect, it is hard to say how the events would have played out had the fall broken my femur, but it is safe to say it would have gotten ugly.
John has a fish pond with a lovely rock garden around it at his house in New Hampshire. There is a new rock there now. I don’t know where it came from, but it looks exactly like the spike I hit on Shivling. Though John won’t admit to it, I am sure he put it there to remind me.
Summary of Statistics
AREA: Garhwal Himalaya, India
SECOND ASCENT: The east ridge (VI 5.10 A2, 56 pitches) of Shivling (6543 meters), September 17-22, 1996 (Richey, Bouchard)
PERSONNEL: Mark Richey, John Bouchard, James Ansara, Mark Streuli