American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Nuptse's West Face

  • Feature Article
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  • Publication Year: 1998

Nuptse’s West Face

Upping the ante in the Nepal Himalaya by TomaŽ Humar, Planinska zveza Slovenije

I left Slovenia for Nepal on September 10, the leader of an expedition to Pumori and Nuptse. Six days later we left the airport at Lukla and headed for the Khumbu. After a few smaller acclimitization tours, we put up a base camp beneath Pumori. Between September 29 and October 1, Janez Jeglic, Carlos Carsolio and I made a first ascent in alpine style of the northeast face of Lobuche East, encountering ice up to 85° on the 900-meter route.

Carlos, Janez, Marjan Kovac and I then turned our attention to Pumori, where, on October 9, we began up a new variation to the French Spur on the southeast face. We managed to climb 800 meters and encountered pitches up to 90°, before abandoning our attempt to help in a very difficult rescue of four Slovakian climbers who had fallen down Pumori’s north face. We were able to save only one, Milos Kijonka. We returned to climb Pumori by its normal route on October 15 with Bercic Cene and Franci Kokalj, but without Carlos. The weather on both mountains had been bad every day.

From October 19 until October 25, it snowed heavily. When the bad weather was interrupted by an unexpected north wind from Tibet, the preparations for our last goal—Nuptse’s west face—began.

For a month and a half—since our expedition started—our eyes have caught glimpses now and again of this ice-pyramid from which seracs keep falling without regard for any timetable. Only the old Japanese man who wants to climb Pumori comes over to see what is going on. The expression on his face as his sirdar tells him we actually are going to ascend the wall that we keep talking about all the time gives away his surprise. I have the impression they had not been taking us seriously.

After the last period of bad weather, all the expeditions, including the famous Kammerlander’s expedition, abandon the valley. The favorable change of weather is our last chance for a successful outcome.

In the afternoon of October 26, Chindi makes a fire in the chorten with fragrant dry twigs. Later on, he helps Marjan, Janez and I cross the snow-covered Kumbu glacier as it is bathed in sunlight. Before nightfall, we manage to level out enough space for our tent and lie down for the night, packed like sardines.

Marjan’s coughing in the morning promises no good. Pain in his lungs and a sudden illness force him to give up the dreams of the last few years. Janez and I must change our climbing tactics, and we decide to take only a kevlar static rope—“just in case.”

After a painful parting with Marjan, we start off at six in the morning with heavy rucksacks and head for the base of the wall. Before reaching the first seracs, we notice a tom red crampon strap, which must have belonged to someone looking for peace on this glacier. The kevlar static rope is useful to us only here, when we are unable to find our way in the labyrinth of crevasses.

Next we enter a couloir over which hangs a huge mass of seracs. We name it the Orient Express. We both feel some very unpleasant anxiety until we climb out of the tedious funnel.

We set up our first bivouac on a plateau at 5900 meters.

A windy night and bad weather in the morning prohibit us from climbing until 11 o’clock. After four hours of climbing, we arrange our second bivouac in a crevasse at 6300 meters.

“What a bivouac!” Janez comments enthusiastically as we lie down for the night after a well-deserved supper. We are convinced we could stick it out here in bad weather for quite some time.

Our illusion of a perfect bivouac vanishes in the night the moment we hear the familiar sound of wind sweeping the wall. It makes our lives hell in the morning, when we have to dig out our tent. A narrow ice bridge and, after that, a mixed traverse to the left are enough to warm our frozen fingers. At about 11 the weather calms down; hanging on our ice axes, we can afford a quick snack. We continue climbing until three in the afternoon. We realize we will not reach the big snow ridge at 7000 meters before evening, so we dig a plateau into a steep slope, where we put up our tent.

It storms again at night, and I have a headache coming on top of that. It seems strange to me, because I believe we had acclimatised well enough on Lobuche and Pumori. I turn on the light and realize the headache is not from insufficient acclimatization but rather from our tent walls bending as they are burdened by the spindrift. The night is still pitch dark and the wind is not relenting, so we have no choice but to spend the rest of the night kneeling, leaning against the walls.

The next day, we manage to put our tent back up, but the day is lost. There is enough food; however, problems with a gas leak from the stove force us to make a decision. Because the weather forecast for the next day is favorable, we decide to try to climb the remaining 1000 meters with light rucksacks in one push. We spend the afternoon preparing for the last attempt—and cooking, cooking.…

“Today you are really spoiling me,” says Janez, as I give him his third portion of soup, complete with ham and other delicacies. “It’s about time you and Miha go climb somewhere so he can see for himself what good eating is! Wow, this is real good .…

We go on filling our stomachs until evening, when, as a dessert, we receive a greeting from the setting sun.

On October 31, we get up at two o’clock, and by four, when we start climbing, I have already obeyed the call of nature twice. Before I manage to zip my trousers, spindrift fills the gap in my backside. By seven o’clock, we are at 7000 meters and Janez turns off route, climbing 200 meters to the right and scaling a rocky crest. My argument that we are just below a hidden couloir does no good until we climb back together higher up, each by his own route.

“Man, did you see where I had got myself?” Janez asks.

“I told you.… Well, let’s just drop it.”

“You feel as cold as I do?”

“Sure, Janez. Hope the sun comes out soon.”

We take a few sips of tea from my piss bottle, remembering the previous night’s talk with a laugh.

“Tomaž, you think this will be OK?”

“You know, Janez, we’ll just rinse out our mouths. It can’t hurt. Anyway, the important thing is—it flows!”

“You’re right,” he says—and the entire quantity of freshly made tea ends up in my emergency bottle.

After a chat by radio with Marjan, who is pleased with our quick advance, we begin up the nasty couloir, a mixture of rocks and vertical powdery snow. A bit of protection would have come in handy, but because there is no way we can protect ourselves, I instead expose myself to the sun as it makes a short appearance. Something beastly is approaching from the west and we hurry as fast as we can.

At half past 11, we contact Marjan from 7500 meters. He tells us there are lenticulars over Everest and strong wind on the ridges of Nuptse. I am much against our calling in live from the top for the Italian national television company RAI. We receive a call from Richard Pavlovski at the base, telling us we still have two or three hours to go to the summit. Janez asks me again if I could say a word for RAI.

“Janez, never mind the interview now—let’s climb until 2 p.m. as agreed and, if we make it to the top, we take some shots and speed down. See what’s coming in from the west. It’s gonna be fucking tough!”

My teeth are chattering as Janez helps me get the snow out of my pants. My poor chilled buttocks haven’t been able to melt it since morning.

“Gee, how much of it have you got here?” Janez wonders, and adds the joke of the expedition: “Hey, kitten, when the wind starts blowing upward … !” We both laugh, as we often have during this expedition, unaware how cruelly true the joke will shortly turn out to be.

We drink up all there is in my “emergency” bottle, eat some pieces of chocolate and head for the top.

Tears in our eyes reveal the relief when we realize we will succeed. Janez is ahead of me, and every now and then we wave to each other with our ice axes. Richard was right; there is still some way to the top. At one o’clock in the afternoon, Janez reaches the summit, looks back and waves. Just a bit more effort and it will all be over.

When I put my feet on top, Janez is not there to greet me. Instead, there are only the strong wind and footsteps leading toward the northwest summit across the south side of the ridge.

“Where is he going now?” I wonder when I see him for a second. I wait, calling after him, “Janez,Janez!”

“Maybe he went forward a bit to have a look,” I guess. I follow him, though cursing mad.

“Where is he pushing himself in this weather?” I think. The wind is blowing in gusts as I reach the last footsteps—only to see the radio, turned on and upside-down on the other side of the ridge.

I break down.

“Nooo!! Janez, Janez!”

There is no trace of him. He just vanished. While asking myself how it could have happened, I call Marjan.

“Marjan, what happened, Marjan?!”

“What is it now, Tomi? Where are you?”

He was expecting me and Janez to shout with joy. Instead, I have to tell him, “Janez, Janez is gone!”

“What do you mean, gone? Gone where?”

Marjan, Peter and I try to figure out what happened. In spite of their urging to descend at once, I fear I have reached the point of no return myself.

I try to pull myself together and keep my head cool for the descent.

Ido quite all right at the start; as soon as I draw back from the ridge to the wall, the wind is no longer a problem. I hurry to the first rocks. During the ascent, I had figured protection would be useful for this part. I lose my frozen goggles here. The day is fading away; a scary night is about to begin.

Not long after the cold chases away the last sunbeams, I become aware of my loneliness. Five days on this wall and as many sleepless nights are eating away at my forces. The cold disables my headlamp batteries and my inner light vanishes with the sun and the moon. I am in a labyrinth of ice and rock, not comprehending my actual position.

The voice from the radio keeps waking me up.

“Come on, Tomaž, don’t give up! Hold on a little more. The tent must be nearby!”

My head tells me not to quit, but my body is slowly and steadily losing power. A terrible feeling! Swinging my ice axes and crampons into the hard ice becomes purely automatic, driven by the instinct for survival. I am lost, with no idea where I am or where I am going. The only important thing is to be moving. The terrible cold and tiredness push me slowly toward the edge of no return. Complete darkness swallows everything around me, and my friends’ voices from the valley grow thinner and thinner. They, too, are aware that if I don’t find the bivouac, the night will be mine forever—the same as it was for Janez only ten hours before.

Far below, I somehow spot a black point that could be my tent. Down in camp, Peter has the brilliant idea of sending me energy via music on the radio. I swallow a few bloody snots and get back on my feet. It seems like an eternity before I come to the troublesome steep corner, which I am forced to climb without being able to see anything. My crampons slip, leaving an insignificant scratch and the familiar smell of sulphur. Both ice axes are losing purchase. I think it is the end of the story… when the crampons, having hit an ice “pancake” just at the end of the steep comer, stop me with a jerk.

I take time to recover my breath, then cross about 30 meters to the tent. These last meters seem never to end. I pull open the frozen zipper on the tent and fall inside with ice axes and crampons still on. A stomachache wakes me up as green bile-like mucus spouts from my mouth. I turn over on my back just to tell the base I am safe. I can’t say any more, though I would like to speak to my friends. Quiet music is all I want. I can’t manage to light the stove

.…

I doze off beside a burning candle.

At around three in the morning, I wake up in flames. Not really knowing what is going on, I instinctively start hitting the stove. At last, I somehow throw it out of the tent—that is, what is left of the tent. Immediately I fall asleep again, without even pulling the burned sleeping bag over me.

Although my friends in the valley are expecting my call in early morning, by 11 o’clock I can still barely lift my head. It takes me another hour to climb out of the tent. Unbearable thirst spurs me on either to descend 1500 meters or perish.

In spite of the wind, I make it quite quickly to the edge of the crevasse where Janez and I had our second bivouac at 6300 meters, but the small bridge that we used four days ago now is gone. Throwing myself some five meters across the edge into a snow cone below the crevasse is the only option. There is no time for guessing what could happen if I break a pick. I am also rather ill-disposed to enter such a guessing game, as I still have ahead of me the couloir into which everything that breaks off the Orient Express—our name for the mass of seracs—falls.

Vertical ice sections are draining what little force I have left. Given the hard, dinner-plating ice, my feet often grope for purchase in the air and not on the steep wall. When I have only a few meters left to the snow-cone at the end of the couloir, I hear a deafening crack above. With all my might, I drive my axes into the ice.

“Damn it,” I curse. “Has the mountain let me come all this way only to finish me like a fly on a windscreen?” Then I bend my head in powerless resignation.

I take one last look above. Ice blocks are bumping into each other and breaking to pieces on the vertical walls. Pieces fall on me, causing my feet to slip twice; they break my nose, and the sharpest piece hits me on top of my head. I look up just as a spindrift avalanche comes rushing down as if to chill my overheated head.

“Holy cow—I am alive!” Adrenaline fills every inch of my body; I throw myself onto the snow-cone and rush down on my backside, back into life. I use my axes to slow down a bit and spare at least something of my coccyx. The last sunbeams say goodbye to the wall for the day while I hurry on down to the rock pillar at the side of the glacier.

I reach the crevasses at twilight, fix a piton and, wrapped in my bivouac sack, wait for Marjan. I can’t afford to cross the dangerous glacier without a light. In my dreams, or rather delirium, I search for a gulp of water. Luckily, the delirium ends as my drowsing head hits the rock.

Shortly after midnight, Marjan is by my side. Stiff and frostbitten, I get to the base of the wall with his help. Two Poles, Richard Pavlovski and Jacek Maselko, are there as well, waiting for me with a full canteen.

Two days later, from the back of a litter, I glance toward Nuptse for the last time. The cold wind reminds me of the words: “Hey, kitten, when the wind starts blowing upward.…”

Reinhold Messner called this face a death zone. To the two of us, it was an ice dream. Unfortunately, it became the path to eternity.

Summary of Statistics

AREA: Nepal Himalaya

VARIOUS ASCENTS: Talking About Tsampa (VI 5.9 WI4, 900m) on the northeast face of Lobuche East (6119m), September 29-October 1, Tomaž Humar, Janez Jeglic, Carlos Carsolio; the normal route on Pumori, October 10-15, Humar, Jeglic, Kovac, Franci Kokalj, Cene Bercic; Humar-Jeglic (VI 5.7 WI5, 2500m) on the west face to Nuptse’s northwest summit (7742m), Tomaž Humar and Janez Jeglic

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