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Russian Style on Changabang, A Convergence of Cultures in the Garhwal Himalaya

Russian Style on Changabang

A convergence of cultures in the Garhwal Himalaya

by Carlos Buhler

In the spring of 1981, I received a letter from Dane Bums. It contained a variety of xeroxed photos from different magazines and journals showing the southern aspects of one of the most alluring and beautiful mountains I’d ever seen. The mountain was called Changabang. Lines and arrows pointed out both established routes and new possibilities on exciting and wild terrain. Scribbled in along the edge of the photo of Changabang’s southwest face were Dane’s emphatic thoughts:

“Now does this look like fun climbing at 21,000 feet?.… It sounds hard, but really neat!” Of a line between two arrows, he wrote, “What do you think? I’ll get a loan if need be, sell my car or my body. … But, let’s go!”

I don’t remember exactly when I heard the name Changabang for the first time. It was after the 1974 first ascent (led by Christian Bonington with his characteristic entourage of Britain’s most accomplished mountaineers) and well before I knew how to launch an expedition to the Himalaya. By the time Dane wrote me, Changabang was embedded in my consciousness. Like a cruel joke, the Indian government decided to close down all climbing on peaks within the Nanda Devi Sanctuary the very next year. Changabang was now closed to climbers indefinitely. It would stay off-limits for the next 15 years.

In 1996, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation made a partial concession to the Sanctuary closure. Those peaks whose flanks fell to the outside of the line would be re-opened for climbing, but only by routes on the outward-facing walls. The Sanctuary boundary ran directly over the summits of Changabang and Kalanka, and their north faces were now open via the Bagini Glacier. But who had been on the Bagini Glacier? As far as I was concerned, the north faces of the two mountains were complete unknowns.

After a repeat of the original route in 1980, Michael Rheinbergers wrote, “On the Nanda Devi, or southern side, the face (of Changabang) seemed to average about 50 degrees, somewhat steeper in places. … To the north, the face fell away at a fearsome angle. …”

Then, in the summer of 1996, Julie-Ann Clyma and her husband, Roger Payne (General Secretary of the British Mountaineering Council), led the first attempt on Changabang’s huge, cold, and impressive north face. The British, it seemed, were always one step ahead when it came to knowing what was out there to climb. Unfortunately for them, they experienced atrocious weather, but still managed to climb high up the steep, iced-up slabs and comers of the immense buttress that protrudes from the left side of the face. More importantly (for me, anyway), they came back with amazing stories and stunning photographs.

Having climbed K2’s North Ridge with a very strong Russian team that same year, I was tempted to explore the smaller, and less known, mountains of Asia the next. But the reality for my Russian friends was that only a known 8000er could attract the Russian sponsorship dollars that would make an expedition possible for them in 1997. Though I mentioned Changabang among other objectives, our choice became the Diamir Flank of Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan, which we agreed to in September 1996, just after our ascent of K2.

Nevertheless, when I returned from China to Pakistan in order to catch my flight to London, I ran into Steve Sustad and Simon Yates in Islamabad. Steve spoke to me then about the north face of Changabang. He was part of a team that would be going back with Roger and Julie-Ann to attempt the unclimbed face again in 1997. According to him, there just might be an extra place on the team. I was supremely interested. Though I kept hoping as long as I could, eventually a team of six British climbers was formed. There would be no place for me.

After our success on Nanga Parbat, the Russians were ready to gamble for sponsorship. Knowing that new routes were waiting on many smaller peaks, their curiosity was ripe for original ideas. When I brought up Changabang again, they were ready to try raising money for it. We wanted something out of the ordinary, something new, and something technical. Beneath the north face of Rakaposhi, in the village of Hussainabad (the home of our Pakistani cook, Ali Madat), our decision was made. We would attempt to climb this infamous north face of Changabang. In reality, I still knew very little about it. I had yet to even see a photograph from that side.

On my way home from Nanga Parbat, I stopped and phoned Steve Sustad during my overnight in London. While systematically dropping a small fortune in change into a public telephone at my B&B near the airport, I heard the tale of their epic first ascent and tragedy on the north face. I was riveted to the phone as I listened to Steve recount the climb. It was a remarkable story. When he was done, I asked him, solemnly, whether there were any possible lines to the right of their route.

“Yes, most definitely, but they will be full-on big wall climbs,” he said. He warned me that they would require the whole gamut of big wall artillery. When I put down the telephone, I was sobered but intrigued. Big wall it would be.

Our team consisted of five individuals: four Russians (Ivan Dusharin, Andrei Mariev, Pavel “Pasha” Chabaline and Andrei Volkov) and one American (me). As leader of the expedition, my chief role after dreaming up the objective was to get as much of the bureaucratic red tape out of the way as I could and maneuver the team, in one organized heap, to the foot of the mountain.

Base Camp was established on April 24. The pastoral meadow was still hidden beneath three feet of winter snow. The five-hour, ten-kilometer approach from there to the foot of the face quickly convinced us to hire a couple of Indian porters, Govinda and Nanda Sing. The terrain above Base Camp was even more deeply covered. The job of ferrying 25 days of rations and gear to the base of the wall was enormous, but it paled in comparison to the thought of lugging it up the wall itself. Unfortunately, we couldn’t employ any enthusiastic Indian porters for that job; we would have to do it ourselves.

As Govinda and Nanda Sing laid their loads down a half mile from the 5,200-foot sheer granite wall, they gazed up at the golden-colored granite ribboned by vertical streaks of blue ice. They must have thought we were completely out of our minds. What an amazing mountain wall of vertical rock and ice! Bordering the face on the left was the ridge followed by the first ascent team in 1974. On the right side of the face rose the rounded ridge from the Bagini Col. These two ridges met at an apex, the summit, centered above the middle of the face. On the lower left of the face, a huge buttress protruded from the wall. The British chose a route on the left side of this buttress in their 1997 ascent. We considered the right side of the buttress for our purposes since we wished to ascend the center of the smooth upper wall. More than a dozen corner systems offered possible routes up the initial 2,000 feet. But above this, there were far fewer options. The smooth upper half of the wall was bisected by three lines of weakness that rose diagonally from left to right. It seemed clear that we had to choose one of these three systems and ride it to its junction with some cracks that angled back left toward the apex of the face.

We spent several days watching and listening to the mountain. Once our initial route choice was made, we knew we’d be committed to that line for the duration of our climb. Though stonefall would be an issue, we agreed to a comer system on the extreme right edge of the buttress where it joined the main part of the face. It formed an iced up comer system of cracks and slabs that would give us the easiest access to our upper wall.

I was sure from the outset that my team was a talented group of individuals. But could we play music together? That had been the question before we began. Though Changabang had been on my mind for two decades, once I brought these men into the picture, I knew the project was no longer my own. It belonged to a larger set of minds. Our most difficult task revolved around coming to grips with the differences in strategy developed by two separate ideologies over the past 50 years. As one might imagine, I, the one American, was at a significant disadvantage when it came to convincing the four Russians that Yosemite methods were appropriate. Whereas Westerners believe in rotating the jobs of climbing a big wall on a mountain rather evenly throughout the effort, the Russians thought that each person should take a fixed position, or task, and stay with it for a long stretch, or even for the duration of the climb. This “collective” style of climbing clashed with my Western style of self-discovery, which they interpreted as individualism. Though we all believed in the concept of teamwork, we drew very different conclusions on how best to obtain it.

I attempted to persuade the group to rotate the many responsibilities of the climb evenly between us. I was not as worried about attaining the summit as I was about having everyone come away from the climb with a feeling of satisfaction and fulfillment. However, the Russians took a different view. They knew that the enjoyment and personal satisfaction from climbing could be had in their home mountains, those closer to Russia and much less costly to reach. On Changabang, they felt they had a job to do. It was their belief that addressing the task at hand (i.e., establishing a direct new route on Changabang’s north face) took precedence over any personal goals they might have had before coming on the expedition. In the end, I was unable to convince them of my viewpoint. In order for the climb to be a team success, someone had to compromise. My rational course of action was to adjust my outlook and allow these people to perform using the methods with which they were most efficient. Following this, I then resolved to support and contribute to our venture in every way.

We agreed to a capsule style, which offered the protection and safety of three consecutive camps on the wall installed in one continuous push. With eight 50-meter lengths of static rope, three 60-meter lead ropes and two 55-meter 7-mm lines to leave on the long traverses, we were neither going very heavy nor very light.

On May 6, a severe storm moved into the area. Our reconnoitering and initial fixing of the lower four ice pitches came to a halt. Sitting out the storm at our advanced camp was not relaxing. We knew that huge avalanches poured off the Bagini Col. Would they threaten us with their enormous runouts? Under the cover of clouds and darkness, I could occasionally hear the muffled running of the avalanches. How close were they coming? Unwilling to dig out our gear and relocate our tents in the storm’s eye, we tried to shut our minds to the possibility that we might be covered. We could only cajole ourselves into remembering that, during the good weather, the wall below the Bagini Col behind camp had seemed to pose no threat at all. How differently things felt beneath three feet of new snow! I was kicking myself for not insisting that we put our two tents another 100 to 200 meters from the headwall.

By May 8, we realized nothing could be gained by waiting in advance Base Camp at the foot of the face for conditions to stabilize. That evening, the skies cleared. But it was clearly going to take several days before things settled down. With no desire to descend the next morning in the heat of the sun, we left ABC at about 8 p.m. It was now clear and cold, with bright moonlight. Over 40 inches of snow had accumulated. To our amazement, our upright grade seven haul bags were completely hidden by fresh powder. What normally took us two-and-a-half hours to descend cost us eight hours in deep snow. It was an exhausting night. Bad weather returned for another day on the 9th. About the same time, I became sick with bronchitis.

On the 10th it cleared again, and the snow started to settle. On May 12, the four Russians went back up to ABC while I remained in B.C. nursing my bronchitis. Once on the mountain, the Russians began doing the grunt work of digging out the gear in the bergschrund from under two meters of new snow, and fixing the next six pitches of mixed ice and rock. On May 15, I made my way to the base of the wall with Govinda and Nanda Sing.

Although our original plans had centered around only four people on the wall, after lugging loads to the foot of the face, it felt unthinkable to expect that now one of us wouldn’t begin the climb. Volkov and Dusharin had invited Mariev to participate on the expedition on the understanding that he might not have a place in the actual climb. But having been together on K2 and Nanga Parbat, the four of us were well acquainted. Pasha Chabaline was actually the “invited outsider” from the city of Kirov, yet his big wall experience eclipsed ours. Unlike the four of us, big walls were his focus in climbing.

When the Russians insisted they could easily manage three people in one of the two-person portaledges, the decision was made. Pasha explained that it would be no different than what they were all too familiar with at home in their tiny apartments. Besides, he explained, in a portaledge this size, he had slept as many as five people, with heads all toward the wall and legs extending outward! Who could argue with that?

Our first long day on the face consisted of hauling and dragging all our personal gear and food up the ten fixed pitches to our first hanging bivouac. We brought all the fixed lines up behind us and established our first hanging camp by night fall. For me, it was one of the three or four most exhausting days of the climb.

The next day, Pasha and Andrei went out in front. Ivan, Andrei M. and I began organizing the hundreds of kilos of gear, fuel, and food. We separated items into bags of what we would need over the next five or six days and what we could haul up the fixed ropes for the future. Water was melted; meals were prepared; ropes untangled, dried and coiled; single 3/8? bolt belay anchors were drilled and backed up. It felt like a construction project to me. Judging by the amount of flammable liquid we carried, I figured we had enough fuel for a month. Then I realized it was 110 proof spirit for drinking, not burning! Ah, but I was getting used to these differences.

We worked like this over the next ten days. The two long days (May 19 and 24) of moving our camps were the worst of all. On those days we adopted the practice of carrying a 15-kilo rucksack on our backs and clipping a 20- to 25-kilo haulbag to the leg loops of our harnesses with long slings. In this way (or so the idea went) we would only have to elevate the remaining four 35-kilo haulbags using the standard pulley system. Well, yes. But it didn’t make ascending ropes much fun. Especially that one, thin, fraying, 9-mm fixed rope we’d brought along!

The aid climbing on the face became one long psychological endurance effort. On the morning of May 27 we had our ropes fixed to a point within a few hundred feet of the top of the wall. Pasha and Andrei went out to complete the last pitches as Ivan, Mariev and I prepared to follow up behind them for an attempt to reach the summit. We should have known that the last pitches would take twice as long as anticipated—everything else had as well. Although Pasha and Andrei managed to complete the wall and fix our three climbing ropes to the col between the two horns, we ran out of daylight before we could attempt the knife-edge ridge to the top. It was necessary to rappel back down to the portaledges and endure another night in the intense cold.

The next morning our luck seemed to run out. It began to snow at 5 a.m. We waited in our sleeping bags as the hours ticked by. The desire to complete the climb to the summit and be done with it was overpowering. We were all near the breaking point, both physically and psychologically. It is hard to say exactly how much longer we might have lasted—perhaps two or three more days—but we were all aware that our mental limit was near. An accident would be so quick and sudden that our minds would hardly register until after it had occurred. We were losing our ability to concentrate and stay focused.

At 9 a.m., the skies began to clear. No storm. It had only been a squall. By 10 a.m. we were re-ascending the fixed lines to the ridge. Our energy was rekindled by the hope that at last, today, we would reach the top and be able to begin our long-awaited descent. It was electrifying. So much energy began to pour from our tired bodies that I wondered if I would have any in reserve for the dangerous rappel down the wall.

Few summits I have been on are as airy and exposed as the top of Changabang. We followed a rising knife-edge ridge out of the col and up along its lower-angled west side. In minutes we were standing on the apex. It was breathtaking. Nanda Devi was visible in a swirl of clouds off to the southeast. I thought about my friend Ad Carter, who together with his teammates in 1936 had made the impressive first ascent. The forbidden Sanctuary lay in tranquillity at our feet in the deep valley below. Dunagiri, a peak I had heard so much about from Dick Renshaw, sat majestically to the west.

We were in no hurry now. We took in our surroundings calmly. Off toward Tibet, the peaks hung like paintings, forming a backdrop only the imagination could surpass.

Hugs and more hugs. Then, photos, and out came the flags. For a few moments we were free from the burden of the wall. It occurred to me that it was the first time I had been able to stand on something in two weeks. But it was too brief. Quickly the feeling faded and we were forced back to the task. Rappels began, back into the world of the vertical cold north face, on to the retrieval of our ropes and gear. It was almost a cruel joke. We knew much work lay ahead of us in the next two days.

After 21 days of working and living on a mile-high face of ice and granite, we reached the bottom of the wall and made our way back to Base Camp. It had been a very rough road. I had been forced to let go of preconceived ideas on how we would attain the summit. Most of all, I had needed to let go of my ego. If I had not released my grip on my original vision, I would have left the expedition. I continually had to remind myself to ease up on my need for control and allow the Russians to “create” in their own way. Only then was I able to lead the project and contribute significantly to the attainment of our goal. In hindsight, the uneven distribution between Russians and American had probably been a good thing: had it been a more balanced team, we might never have been able to find a compromise.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about the climb was the fact that we finished the expedition as better friends than when we had begun. Along the way, there arose enough disputes, stemming from cultural gaps and differences in climbing philosophy, to fill a small book. My reward at the end, however, was the honor of working together with a talented team of individuals to establish one of the most ambitious and difficult big wall routes in the Himalaya.

Summary of Statistics

Area: Garhwal Himalaya, India

New Route: The Lightning Route (VII 5.9 A4 WI4, 5,200 feet) on the north face of Changabang (6864m), April 16-June 6, 1998, Carlos Buhler (U.S.), Andrei Volkov, Andrei Mareiv, Ivan Dusharin, Pavel Chabaline (Russia)