A Touch Too Much?
The first ascent of Changabang ’s north face
by Mick Fowler
I squatted uncomfortably over the public toilet hole in the airport customs building. It was the first full day of the trip and already diarrhea was dripping simultaneously from both buttocks. A challenging start indeed. I peered hopefully around for some toilet tissue to be faced only with a small plastic jug nestled under a floor- level tap. India’s a great place, but it can come as something of a shock. Straight from the soft toilet- paper tissue world of rural England, six of us had come to climb the north face of Changabang, an objective that Roger Payne had led a trip to attempt the previous year and that we all had an overriding urge to climb.
Three of the previous year’s team—Roger, his wife Julie-Ann Clyma, and Brendan Murphy— were back. In addition, there was Steve Sustad, Andy Cave and me. The plan was to climb alpine style as three independent teams of two—“alpine style” to us meaning that we would climb in one push, carrying all our equipment on our backs and, within reason, the second and the leader climbing the whole route without any jumaring or other jiggery-pokery with ropes.
A more immediate plan was that Steve Sustad and I would sign lots of forms and extract our freighted equipment from the Customs import building while Roger Payne would rush to the Indian Mountaineering Federation for the Changabang expedition’s official briefing. I did not know Roger, the General Secretary of the British Mountaineering Council, that well before the trip, but already it was clear that he had a natural enthusiasm and ability at all things to do with paperwork and officialdom. Steve and I were more than happy to defer.
There was, however, a problem. All three of us had started the customs trail but, once Roger left us, it quickly transpired that only he had an “action” pass for the building. Steve and I had “visitor-only” passes. I couldn’t understand why anyone might want to visit the Customs building, as it’s not exactly a tourist attraction; so I squatted miserably amidst the inevitable time delay and confusion involved in changing my pass for one that enabled some constructive action.
Roger, though, must have a sixth sense. The day was saved by his arrival, brimming with health, confidence and paperwork just as I felt at the opposite end of the spectrum and a bureaucratic impasse seemed inevitable.
I had not been on a Payne-Clyma expedition before. Previous jaunts in the big mountains always had been on the basis of a sort of communal responsibility vaguely steered by one person. Here, though, Roger and Julie-Ann were clearly in complete control. Prior to leaving for India, I had wondered about this when Roger and I met on the crag, only to discover that we hadn’t enough equipment to climb.… But now, organized computer lists of things to do in Delhi appeared with alarming efficiency.
In fact, in retrospect, things had been different from usual the moment we arrived at the airport. Instead of the chaos and confusion followed by the cheapest possible transport to Delhi, we were met by a luxury minibus, complete with curtains, which whisked us away to comfortable and clean pre-booked accommodation. A whole new experience for me.
And it continued. Shopping by computer list prepared in Britain, our own pre-booked minibus to Josimath, porters to order and a bus to carry them. Roger was in his element, beating even the Indian bureaucrats at their own game. The poor local magistrate was left a perplexed man. We had been told to advise him formally of our intentions and ended up sitting in his courtroom before a huge raised desk with 100 or so seats behind us. With much forelock tugging and references to “Sir,” a letter detailing our plans was put before him. Roger slipped a photo of the mountain in for good measure. There was a long pause while the magistrate peered quizzically at what was before him. Eventually, he drew his very substantial frame up to full height.
“What do you want from me?” he inquired.
“Nothing,” replied our bureaucratic expert.
And so the meeting ended and we were on our way. Lesser bureaucrats than Roger have been known to fail at such hurdles.
The roadhead was not really a roadhead at all, more a rest area where everyone piled out of the bus and porters queued for items such as socks, shoes and sunglasses. Personally, I’d never previously bothered with supplying such items and simply negotiated slightly higher wages instead. It had to be admitted, though, that their availability gave us an additional weapon in our efforts to maintain order… or perhaps it was just that Roger’s porter-control- ling efforts had the edge over any I’d come across before. Either way, the end result avoided the usual rush for the easiest—or lightest—looking loads, and a remarkably organized group of 35 or so porters headed off up the excellent forested tracks toward the summer village of Dunagiri and, ultimately, our base camp at just above 4500 meters.
I lay in my tent nursing my throbbing head. The Fowler body was, true to form, acclimatizing slowly. After two days at base camp, the others were bubbling with energy and talking positively about how to tackle Changabang’s north face. Meanwhile, I groaned gently and faced such decisions as how many painkillers I should sensibly take.
Changabang is not visible from Base Camp, so I was spared the pleasure of seeing it until four days after arriving, by which time I felt just about ready to tackle the challenging walk to an Advanced Base Camp at about 5100 meters. The walk acted as a brutal reminder of the truly demoralizing nature of unacclimatized activity. Roger and Julie-Ann had told us to expect a six-hour walk. We arrived in the morning of our third day.
The views, though, were uplifting. Directly across the glacier from ABC, the north face of Changabang rose in an impressive steep wall, peppered with a liberal assortment of snow and ice. In places, the ice looked white, friendly and probably easy to climb. In other areas, though, a shiny green reflection revealed hard, uncompromising shields that appeared to be stuck to near-vertical ground. Try as we might, it was impossible to link up the white streaks; we were going to have to climb the white ice, green ice and rock sections in between.
“Nice to have a bit of variety,” Steve assured me. I peered at the green, featureless 55° ice slopes that formed a substantial part of the lower section. They looked technically mundane but physically knackering. I declined to comment.
Acclimatizing is boring, the main aim of the game being to spend as much time “up high” as possible to get the body in a condition where it at least stands a chance of success on the real objective. Our plan was to maximize interest in this process by climbing up to a col (the Bagini Col), which we intended to cross on our planned circuitous descent from the mountain. If we felt energetic, we might even descend the far side to the Ramani Glacier (from where Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman made their generation-inspiring 1976 ascent of Changabang’s north face) and leave a food dump there.
Reality proved different. Day four from Base Camp saw us wading through knee-deep snow on the upper Bagini Glacier. The temperature hovered around 40°C and the Bagini Col was 600 meters above us and a couple of horizontal miles away… or, at our current rate, at least another two days. As on the three previous days, we used heat exhaustion as an arguably valid excuse for bringing the day to a possibly premature close at 10 a.m. and settled down to a strenuous day of acclimatizing by lying horizontally reading books and drinking endless cups of tea. I was just slipping into full relaxation mode when the sound of heavy breathing outside attracted our attention.
Andy and Brendan were powering their way up the glacier toward us, having left Base Camp that morning. My feeling of general exhaustion deepened. The potential for demoralization is high with these young (well, under 35) fit types on a trip. I made a mental note to think about ensuring that I am surrounded by slow and unhealthy companions in the future. Much to my relief, they decided not to carry on, and we camped side by side that night, convincing each other that the snow conditions were such that the Bagini Col would be avalanche-prone. The immense amount of energy that would have to be expended to get there also seemed to be a contributing factor. As Steve explained to me, “It’s important not to bum out too early on a trip.”
I agreed heartedly, and spent the rest of the day snoozing gently in my sleeping bag with the occasional brew break. Every now and then, I even managed to read a few words of my book.
The acclimatization process continued in an enervating and rather unsatisfying manner. Steve and I climbed 300 meters up a rather impressive unclimbed 6500-meter peak called Dunagiri Parbat, while Andy and Brendan did likewise on a different spur of the same peak. Judging our bivy height of about 5500 meters to be high enough, Steve and I managed two nights there with general lassitude and intermittent dozing extending over the whole of the intervening day. With my youngest child not being the best sleeper, I took great pleasure in maximizing on the snoozing hours. The boredom potential was, however, increasing, and as we gradually felt a little better (my altitude headache was even moderating by now), an urge to get under way on Changabang grew stronger. We headed back to Base Camp for some decent food and a proper rest before going for it.
It was a surprise for us to find Andy and Brendan already at Base Camp. We had expected to be down first and ready to get on the face before them, but it turned out that they had coped with acclimatization and boredom even less well than we and had descended the day before. Roger and Julie-Ann also had been out acclimatizing. Later that day, they, too, arrived back at Base Camp feeling ready to begin.
We always knew that there was a number problem on this trip, but the prospect of three teams in action on the face, one behind the other, brought it into a sharp focus that was only slightly relieved when Roger and Julie-Ann decided to try a line to one side of that preferred by the rest of us.
Steve and I sat at Advanced Base peering at the face through binoculars. Andy and Brendan had been caught by the morning sun on the initial ice slopes and their progress had slowed to a crawl. We felt for them, and noted that the midday sun over Changabang is so high that even the steep north face gets it for most of the day—that is, of course, if the sun was not obscured by the incessant clouds that boiled up every afternoon and which had prompted at least some precipitation every day so far.
It was rather pleasant reclining in the tent eating excessively (“stocking up for the route,” we said), chatting away and occasionally stretching for the binoculars. It was a unanimous and easily reached decision that an extra day at Advanced Base would give the others a chance to get well under way. “Best not to end up fighting over bivy ledges,” as Steve put it.
And so we set off two days behind them, while Roger and Julie-Ann, following a different line, set off one day behind us. It was beginning to feel a bit crowded. We had not seen any Westerners at all since leaving Joshimath and, in all probability, there were no climbers whatsoever within a ten-mile radius, and yet there were six of us engrossed on the north face of Changabang. As lovers of adventure and isolation, the irony of the situation did not escape us.
We had food for eight days and gas for ten. I had organized “breakfast” and Steve the “evening meal.” Breakfast had been easy: two small bags of muesli-type stuff looked about right for 16 servings. Steve’s task was more challenging. Evening meals were to consist of mashed potatoes and noodles on alternate nights. Noodle quantities were pretty straightforward, mashed potatoes not so. The problem was that our selected supermarket’s mashed-pota- to packets claimed to do 18 servings, whereas another similar-sized product of powder that we had been using claimed to do six servings but only lasted us for one meal. Steve decided the servings must be very small.
Day one was a potato day, and the evening found us perched on a 12-inch-wide bum ledge marveling at the mashed potatoes liberally overflowing from the huge pan of our hanging stove. Steve decanted furiously into the lid and both our mugs. It was indeed impressive that such a small quantity of powder could be turned into such a vast quantity of potatoes. Perhaps we had found the ultimate hill food? “Full of carbohydrates,” Steve assured me, as I dutifully struggled with the volume, keen not to commit the ultimate Himalayan sin of not eating my full allocation of food. “Full of weight, too,” I managed to comment between dry and powdery mouthfuls. I was mindful of the unwieldy weight of our sacks, about which we had both been moaning constantly.
The afternoon of our first day had been cut abruptly short by the usual pattern of heavy snowfall, which translated into a continuous stream of spindrift pouring down the groove line that we were trying to climb. In fact, without spindrift, it was a particularly nice groove line, very steep, but with only intermittent breaks in a covering of perfect white ice. It was disappointing to have to stop earlier than planned and even less satisfying to spend a very uncomfortable spindrift-ridden night perched on one buttock. But, by the morning, we had at least both recovered from the previous night’s potato excess and were in a position to take advantage of the standard fine morning weather. Unfortunately, though, the rigors of the night had been such that we somehow didn’t actually get going until just past 9 a.m. Inexcusable, really, when it was fully light by 5:30 a.m.
In terms of climbing time per day, day two on the face was even worse. Our late start didn’t help, and by the time we completed the fourth pitch of the day, the weather was such that a stop was inevitable. We sat huddled together while a three-hour fabric-flapping storm buffeted our little tent, tucked into a snow spur beneath the first of a series of three ice slopes.
Unknown to us, up above, Andy and Brendan were caught out on difficult ground in this violent weather. Brendan fell 60 feet and Andy suffered frostbite in his thumb. Meanwhile, Roger and Julie-Ann spent a character-building night standing up somewhere down to our left with their bivy bags over their heads. Relatively speaking, we were pretty comfortable.
We were now at the foot of the first of the ice fields. Photos taken the previous year showed these to have been largely snowy, but this year they glistened hard and shiny—pure calf-wrenching stuff. In fact, it seemed that it was not just the ice slopes that were very different from the previous year. Brendan had recalled never wearing his duvet on the face in 1996. This year, though, it was cold enough for me to wear mine leaving Base Camp, and not a day went by without us wearing them on the route. Global change or local anomaly?
The ice was as hard as it looked, and long, precarious wobbles on front points were wearing on both the mind and body. Steve eased the belay strain by tying his rucksack in and sitting on it with his legs dangling free. It looked very strange but seemed to work well.
A false line and a couple more interesting pitches saw us bivying at the foot of the second ice field. Unfortunately, my homemade adze had failed to stand up to the strain of the interesting pitches. I like a huge adze for tackling nasty overhanging Himalayan snow and had had one made for me back in 1995. The manufacturers warned me then that it wasn’t very strong, but I suppose that after 43 pitches of hard use on Tawoche in Nepal I had become overconfident of its strength. My axe looked sort of naked without it. I kept my fingers crossed that we wouldn’t come across too many overhanging powdery sections higher up.
Day four on the face consisted of another smooth slab of hard ice and a hard mixed pitch leading out on to an ice field below the steep upper third of the face. From the ice field, we could look out right to the snow rib, which marked the high point of the 1996 attempt. It looked to be a long calf-wrenching traverse away, and I felt glad that a change in ice conditions since the previous year had tempted everyone to steer clear of the 1996 line.
On arriving at ice slope three (getting tedious by now, these ice slopes), it was a both a pleasant but worrying discovery to find Andy and Brendan in situ on a tiny platform hacked out of the ice. They were about to spend their third night there.
“Thought we’d hang around a bit and enjoy the view,” Brendan explained mischievously.
The truth, of course, was slightly different. The vicious storm of two days ago had caught them on the hard pitch between the ice fields. Climbing in such conditions must have been character-building, to say the least. After Brendan’s fall, and a long, cold lead by Andy, they managed to squeeze into their bivy at about midnight. Andy had some frostbite damage in his fingertips and, potentially more seriously, in his thumb. Understandably, they then felt that a recovery and recuperation day was in order.
The following day, they set out on the steep upper third of the face, only to find that by the time the daily bad weather moved in they were only about 120 meters up without a hint of a bivy site in sight. Tying their ropes together, they returned to the icefield bivy… and had the dubious pleasure of meeting Steve and me.
I say dubious in a tongue-in-cheek way, but it is true that to a certain extent we all felt it best to be well clear of other climbers on a route like this. Too many people together increases the risk of (very) uncomfortable bivouacs, long waits on stances and stone/icefall. Another, almost inevitable, result seems to be lots of jumaring and rope antics in general, rather than climbing. Not my cup of tea at all.
Having said all this, the other side of the coin was an obvious pleasure involved in meeting friends unexpectedly and the camaraderie involved in being together. But what should we do now? Continue together, or wait for Andy and Brendan to clear the way? The decision was far from clear-cut, but both Steve and I have a strong aversion to inactive days on the mountain. The others appeared indifferent, so the decision was made. We would team up as four and proceed as best we could. As Andy and Brendan were just completing their sixth day on the face and had only eight days’ food, there was, of course, another benefit in staying together and sharing our mashed-potato surplus.
And so the next morning saw Steve and me enjoying a lie-in while the others headed off. The start was, in fact, delayed by some unhealthy looking sunrise clouds, and it was midday before they reached the previous day’s high point and were ready to start climbing. Steve and I dithered more as the hours ticked by. With the usual afternoon bad weather, it was unlikely that they would manage more than two or three pitches before being forced to stop. As far as we could see, that meant that they wouldn’t reach a bivy ledge good enough for two, let alone four. And to make matters worse, clouds were already swirling around them in line with the trend of the bad weather arriving earlier every day.
They had taken our ropes to speed things up, so we could remove and use theirs; also, the gear was split fairly evenly between us. All in all, there was no reason why we couldn’t continue as independent teams of two if we wanted to. Steve shouted up that we would stay put for the day and, in the absence of any violent objection, we prepared for a day of relaxation. Being camped on a slight arête projecting from the third ice field, we felt relatively safe from any falling debris. Little did we know how wrong this would prove to be.
The trouble with Himalayan ice climbs is that it is virtually impossible to climb pure ice without it shattering and substantial plates falling away. Naturally, they break into smaller pieces as they bounce down—but the ground that Brendan was leading on was sufficiently steep and icy for them to fall more or less sheer to the ice slope, at which point they tended to cartwheel off in any direction that they fancied.
At about 1 p.m., a particularly loud noise signaled the approach of something notably unpleasant. I was struggling to put my boots on and clear the accumulating snow that was threatening to push us off our little ledge while Steve was lying down waiting for me to get out of the way. We both pressed ourselves against the inner wall of the tent as a six-inch diameter flat piece of rock came straight through the back panel, missing Steve’s head by perhaps two inches.
What to do? We were clearly not in as safe a position as we had hoped. I hurled some abuse up into the clouds and received an apologetic response—but then they were hardly throwing things at us on purpose. Practically, there was nowhere safer to move to, and we would have to grin and bear it.
The rest of the day was spent huddled against the sidewall with our helmets on. The end result was three holes in the tent, lots of adrenaline flow, but no injuries. Steve did a wonderful job sewing up the tent with a spare lurid pink bootlace that he happened to be carrying.
Somehow our “rest” day hadn’t proved very relaxing, and the next morning it was hardly a refreshed-feeling team that climbed up the two ropes that the others had left. Here, though, we were comfortably on to the upper third of the face. The occasional piece of ice shot past, reminding us of the other two, but at least there was relief from the monotonous tedium of the knackering, featureless ice slopes. In fact, the ground here was much more my cup of tea: steep, thin ice runnels with lots of variety and mixed climbing. I was really beginning to enjoy myself at the time—as opposed to the Himalayan norm of retrospective pleasure. Inevitably, though, it did not last.
By 11 a.m., the “afternoon” bad weather was pouring waves of spindrift down on to us. Steve had headed off up a deepening groove system. His signals of discomfort warned me in good time when particularly penetrating blasts of spindrift were approaching and, as ever, in such conditions our progress slowed to a crawl.
Our bivouac was such that it simply served to justify our decision not to proceed as a team of four. The ledge wasn’t even big enough for the two of us in a sitting position. We hung forlornly in the flapping tent fabric dangling uncomfortably from tied-off ice screws. Midway through the night, life seemed particularly miserable. Spindrift kept pouring through a hole in the tent and blasting its way around the inside. Keeping it out of my sleeping bag while suspended from a rope tied round my waist was a challenging way to spend a few hours. Meanwhile, Steve groaned noisily next to me. He was in a bivy bag inside the tent and so was better off from the spindrift point of view, but had a less comfortable (well, even more uncomfortable) section of bum ledge than I did. I’ve had worse bivouacs, but an awful lot better ones, too.
By the time we had sorted ourselves out the next day, I was perhaps not feeling my best. It was, though, rather demoralizing to realize that it was already snowing hard as Steve was leading the first pitch of the day at 8:15 a.m. We managed a meager two pitches that day before the first ledge in seven days of climbing provided all the temptation we needed to pitch the tent and assess our position.
“Enjoying your holiday, Michael?”
“Most rewarding,” I responded, contemplating our remaining food. This was the end of day seven from Advanced Base, so we should have had just one day’s food left. Reality, though, was much more encouraging. The mashed potato surplus was such that we clearly had at least something to eat for another five to six days. The gas, too, was lasting well. There was clearly no justifiable excuse to retreat… and, after all, a bit of bad weather has to be expected when out on the mountain for so long.
As an added incentive, Roger and Julie-Ann’s tent now was visible down on the ice field.
The morning dawned perfect, with superb views right across the breadth of the Himalayan chain. We could see from Tibet in the north to the Indian plains in the south—magnificent. I remember saying to Steve how lucky we were to be able to “do this kind of thing.” He agreed.
We were feeling confident now and guessed the top of the face to be only 500 feet or so above us. Route-finding looked to be a bit of a problem and, sure enough, we probably followed a more difficult line than we had to. But at least we enjoyed some wonderful mixed climbing through a steep rocky band to gain an ice slope and exciting corniced exit on to the summit ridge.
And what a ridge, what a relief to be able to walk about after eight days on the face, and what a stunning view of Nanda Devi standing gloriously aloof in the middle of her forbidden (courtesy of the Indian Government) sanctuary. That afternoon, the clouds boiled up to the extent that we caught only a tantalizing glimpse of the sun-struck summit, but that alone was enough to fire the imagination.
It was a day from there to the summit and back. Andy and Brendan had been to the top that day and could be seen descending toward us, but tracks going down the ridge suggested that their tent was a little lower down. “Let’s go and pitch the tent with the others,” Steve suggested.
To me, the spot where we had joined the ridge looked okay for cutting out a good platform and would minimize the height gain necessary in the morning, but Steve was already off. I wondered whether to call a halt, but then it would be sensible to have a good chat with the others, and they probably would appreciate some mashed potatoes (even though I was getting pretty sick of them). I said nothing, took up some coils and prepared to follow.
Steve had been having trouble with his crampons from the word go. They balled up almost immediately on the ridge and he slipped over, stopping himself straight away. I could see he was uncharacteristically uncomfortable, though. As he continued, his heel sections balled up again after only one or two steps. I could see them slipping to one side.
Suddenly, one foot slipped away from beneath him on the balled-up snow and he fell onto his side. Braking from that position was difficult, as the still-heavy rucksack tended to pull him back. I watched with horror as he started to slide down the side of the ridge. I knew that it steepened markedly just below us and my quickly positioned ice-axe-in-the-snow belay was not really up to any serious forces. I remember glancing up at the crest. Could I jump down the other side? No, it was too far above me. I braced myself. I had managed to get a waist belay and leaned in to take the strain.
To begin with, I felt I was in with a chance. I could feel my crampon points biting home and see Steve swinging around below me. But the farther he swung, the more the slope steepened and the more the strain grew. Ultimately, I crumpled to one side and came on to the axe. I felt just a token resistance as I was dragged down. My feelings were of complete despair. All those promises to my wife and children.
“Be careful,” Nicki had said when I left.
“I will,” I’d replied cheerfully.
I swear I saw their faces as I fell. More than fear was a tremendous feeling that I’d let them down. I was accelerating fast now and then free falling. A huge thump winded me and I was simultaneously aware of a sharp pain across my face. Then I had stopped. I explored myself and my position cautiously. My nose was bleeding and appeared to be broken but my arms, legs and body seemed fine. The rope had wrapped itself around me in such a way that I couldn’t move easily.
“Steve. You all right?”
I knew then that Steve was only ten feet away, but I couldn’t squirm around to see him clearly. There was a terrible, pregnant, silence. He, too, was checking his body.
“My ribs hurt. Not feeling too good.”
Steve is a tough man. I knew he would not be exaggerating. I also knew that he, like me, would be shocked, and further injuries might come to light. Untangling myself from the rope was surprisingly difficult, but it was encouraging that Steve, too, was able to free himself. We both stood there contemplating our position.
I still had an incredibly strong vision of my family, and the close call had clearly had a deep emotional impact. I could feel tears welling up in my eyes. The snow platform on which we had come to a halt was about 200 feet below the ridge, and huge. We admitted later that an early thought that we both shared was what a pain it was to have to climb straight up to the crest when we had thought the day’s exertions were almost over.
Practically, of course, they were. It was already 5 p.m. and the weather was far from settled. As we gathered our thoughts, it was obvious that the only sensible thing to do was to stay put for the night and assess our position in the morning.
It was disturbing to hear Steve making nasty gurgling and groaning noises in his sleep. Had he punctured a lung or got some other internal injury? There was no way of knowing, and frankly, little I could do but keep my fingers crossed.
To begin with, things looked bad in the morning, but it soon became clear that, once upright, he was able to move around quite easily, although unable to carry much beyond his sleeping bag. Distressing as it was, we abandoned all of our non-essential equipment. Some of it was very expensive. We must have felt that the situation was serious.
The first task was to get back to the crest of the ridge which, fortunately, was approachable at one point via a 50-55° snow/ice slope. (And I thought I’d be spared any more slopes like this on the trip.) We could see the others up on the ridge and headed diagonally up to them, gratefully taking up Andy’s offer of a top rope, which meant that Steve and I could climb together and we wouldn’t have to waste time belaying.
And so we met for the second time on the route. This time, though, there was no doubt about it. Going up was out of the question for Steve, and the decision to join together for the descent was easily made and unanimous.
In fact, the others were having their fair share of problems, too. Their food had now effectively run out and Andy appeared to have contracted secondary frostbite in his thumb. Steve, the acknowledged frostbite expert among us (one toe gone) confided in me that he thought that Andy could well have to have it amputated at the joint.
There were two possible ways of descending: abseil the face, or descend the south side of the mountain (reputedly snow slopes, with one or two abseils) and cross two largely unknown cols to return to our Advanced Base Camp. Steve was keen to abseil/be lowered (depending on the pain), whereas the rest of us voted for the south-side descent. This involved traversing along the knife-edged col between Changabang and Kalanka and then rising up for a few hundred feet to a system of glacial steps before descending diagonally across Kalanka’s huge open south face.
By that evening, we were camped at the beginning of the glacial steps. The intervening day had involved a couple of slanting abseils on hard ice and some steep bottomless powder slopes. All in all, I was encouraged. Steve was able to walk strongly and didn’t seem to be as badly impaired as he had on more awkward ground. Andy’s thumb hardly seemed to affect him at all.
The next day looked to be the crucial descent day. If we could get down to the Changabang glacier we would at least have two options: either descend the glacier and try to walk out via the politically “closed” Rishiganga Gorge, or follow our original and preferred plan of crossing the Shipton and Bagini Cols to get back to Advanced Base. Either way, we needed good visibility and fine weather to descend safely to the glacier.
Luck was not with us. The morning dawned with intermittent cloud, and by the time we had descended 500 meters, it was snowing heavily and was impossible to see quite where we were going. Eventually, we came to a point where we would clearly have to abseil. It looked to be the edge of the giant couloir that Andy and Brendan had seen on their summit day and which we knew we had to descend into. But, in the conditions, we could not be sure.
We placed an ice screw and I abseiled. Almost immediately, it was clear that the situation was far from ideal. I was abseiling over the lip of a large serac, hanging free and gently rotating. After 100 feet or so, I landed on 70° rock slabs and, as these were exposed to anything falling out of the rather unstable-looking serac, I scrabbled 30 feet or so to one side out of the fall line.
Looking up, it was clear that, apart from the high chance of the rope jamming, this would be a potentially dangerous abseil for anyone with broken ribs or a badly frostbitten thumb. I secured myself and shouted up that the others should move the abseil rope across 30 feet or so to a position where a relatively straightforward abseil would be possible. I then disconnected myself from the abseil rope and settled down to wait.
It was still snowing heavily and small snow slides swished past intermittently. An ominous roaring sound gave warning of something more serious. I was anchored in a shallow groove and stuck my nose as firmly into the back as it would go. Heavy snow battered my helmet and shoulders. This was a nasty one, by far the heaviest so far; I prayed that there wouldn’t be anything hard and painful mixed in with the snow. It probably lasted less than a minute, but felt an awful lot longer.
Eventually, though, the pressure eased and I was able to shake off the loose snow. I was getting cold now and wanted to put my duvet on but was wary of doing so in case further avalanches came down. I decided to wait until after the next abseil—but what was going on up above? Nothing seemed to be happening. I shouted up, “What’s the problem? It’s fine down here.”
After several increasingly insistent shouts, Andy’s voice penetrated the mist. “Is Brendan with you?”
This seemed a curious question. My alarm bells rang immediately. Of course he wasn’t with me—the abseil rope hadn’t even been moved.
“Oh… Fucking hell. He’s gone!”
Brendan had been swept off by the avalanche while moving the abseil point. My heart was in my mouth immediately. I looked down hopefully. Below me, 300 to 400 feet of 70° mixed ground gave way to a couple thousand feet of snow slopes with occasional rock steps as much as a couple hundred feet high. There was no sign of Brendan and, realistically, no chance that he would have survived.
Our abseiling proceeded carefully and quietly. There was little conversation and much feeling for Brendan, his friends and family. This was a new experience for Andy and me… and I think we both sensed that its impact would grow rather than diminish as the days passed. Steve remained his usual stoic, reliable self, although he, too, was clearly moved. He hadn’t really known Andy or Brendan before the trip, but only 30 minutes or so before the accident had commented to me “what nice blokes” they both were.
It was dark way before we reached a bivouac spot, and mid-morning the following day before we could see the whole of the area where Brendan probably ended up. There was no sign of him at all. Andy shouted hopefully, but there was no response. The sun was hitting the face and the first snow slides of the day were already coming down. I was exhausted now. I think we all were. It may well have been beyond us, but if not, it would certainly have been unjustifiably dangerous to search through avalanche debris beneath a huge hot Himalayan face. And to what purpose? The most likely end result would have been further fatalities. With a sense of reluctance and with huge sadness, we turned our backs on the face and waded through the soft snow and searing heat of the Upper Changabang Glacier to a safe tent site.
In “normal” circumstances, we would have been able to relax and walk easily down to a Base Camp the following day. Here, though, the Nanda Devi Sanctuary below us offered little in the way of security. Not visited since the early 1980s, and protected by the difficult Rishi Ganga Gorge, it was pretty clear to us that the old tracks would be extremely difficult to follow and the bridges long since swept away. Even with the track in good condition, it used to be six porter days from a Base Camp at the foot of the Changabang Glacier to the road. In our condition, and with the track unused for more than ten years, it would doubtless take even longer, and could even prove impossible. We had enough mashed potatoes for only one day, and the exit on to the road was a long, long way from our Base Camp by the Bagini Glacier. The only alternative was to follow our original plan of traversing the mountain over Shipton Col and the Bagini Col to regain the Upper Bagini glacier. This had seemed a great idea back in Britain, but now, faced with the reality of two 1,500-foot climbs, it didn’t seem quite so appealing. We spent the rest of the day lying flat out in the heat, talking about Brendan and staring at the horribly lengthy slope leading up to the Shipton Col.
The next two days drifted by in a sea of exertion. Andy was walking strongly, but the snow was crusty and exhausting. Progress was erratic and uncertain. We started walking at midnight, but even so, the snow would frequently almost take our weight only to have the crust break at the last moment. The resultant jarring was clearly excruciating for Steve.
The Shipton Col showed a vertical headwall to the Ramani Glacier on the other side, which involved more abseiling than the descent from Changabang to the Changabang Glacier. The Ramani Glacier itself, where Pete Boardman and Joe Tasker had based themselves in 1976, gave four or five miles of gradual height gain before the final 1,500-foot, 45-50° slope to the Bagini Col provided a huge sting in the tail. Several times I caught myself falling asleep draped over my ice axes. This was day 13 for Steve and me and day 15 for Andy. It struck me that this was how it would all finish if one carried on to the bitter end… just falling asleep and not waking up again… no pain…
The sun caught us on the Bagini Col. Previously, we had been worried about our cold feet. Now, though, the problem was the heat, which had a debilitating effect on our bodies and softened the slope horribly. We frontpointed, slipped, slithered and finally got down to the flat snow of the Upper Bagini.
Steve and I argued over the best way to descend the final 500 feet to Advanced Base. It was all feeling a bit out of control; we never argue in the mountains. Even worse, we opted to take different lines. I scraped my hands nastily slipping down a steep icy section, and Steve twisted his leg coming down a slope of soft snow covering hard ice. Ten hours after leaving the Ramani Glacier, we finally crawled into our Advanced Base Camp… and food, safety, contentment. The greatest adventure of my life nearly over.
Back at Base Camp, we were reunited with Roger and Julie-Ann. They had only gotten back the day before us and had had their fair share of excitement, spending 11 days in all on the face. The weather had pinned them down on the third ice field and the spindrift had been such that they even had to abort one attempt at an abseil descent and climb back up to their bivouac spot, where they then spent four days desperately trying to stop the accumulating snow from pushing their tent off the mountain.
And what do I think of it all now? Andy’s thumb has made a miraculous recovery. Steve’s ribs (he’d broken four in several places) have healed well… but Brendan will never come back. I feel the loss of life and our near-miss have complicated my emotions and soured the sense of euphoric achievement that usually accompanies a Himalayan success. But I learned a lot and experienced a lot. As an adventure, the experience was unbeatable. The mountains need not worry. I love them still.
Summary of Statistics
AREA: Indian Himalaya
NEW ROUTE: The North Face (1600m) of Changabang (6864m), May 23-June 6, 1997, Andy Cave and Brendan Murphy (to summit), Mick Fowler and Steve Sustad, May 25-June 6 (to summit ridge). Murphy killed on June 3.
PERSONNEL: Roger Payne, Julie-Ann Clyma, Andy Cave, Brendan Murphy, Mick Fowler, Steve Sustad