American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Kasum Kanguru's East Face, Solitary Adventures on a Never-Ending Story

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  • Publication Year: 1999

Kasum Kanguru’s East Face

Solitary adventures on a never-ending story

by Yasushi Yamanoi, Japan translated by Eiichi Fukushima

Kasum Kanguru, at 6370 meters and with all the approaches to its summit consisting of steep snow and rock faces, might not be a suitable target for a peak bagger. However, considering the lack of red tape involved in climbing it, the mountain is a great objective as a test of one’s technical climbing ability. Although there are several routes on the peak already, the steep east and west faces had yet to be climbed. I thought of climbing the west face at first, but changed my mind upon hearing about the difficult approach and the supposed poor quality of the rock. The east face serves as a backdrop for those climbing Mera Peak, but is probably not given much thought as a climbing objective.

Much effort was expended in collecting photos and other relevant material before leaving Japan. Quite by chance, I discovered that Daisuke Nakagaki, with whom I climbed the southwest face of Pakistan’s Bublimotin in 1995, had been collecting many photos of the east face of Kasum Kanguru from a big wall climber’s point of view. Those photos showed that there are indeed cracks in the center of the 1500-meter wall, but the preponderance of reddish rock hinted of danger. If it were to be climbed, I would have to use a portaledge.

The right side did not look as steep as the center and the rock looked to be more solid; however, I could not identify as many cracks as I did in the center of the wall. It might be climbable in 30 to 40 hours, but I wanted to solo it, regardless of the particular route.

Many friends have criticized my penchant for soloing, but it really suits my temperament. I do not like to compete and, at the same time, I like to make my own decisions. Furthermore, soloing is not as dangerous for me as people make it out to be. Finally, solo climbing in a remote location leads to a better understanding of one’s self and of nature.

For me, solo climbing has resulted in many vivid memories that would not have been possible to experience otherwise. One such experience was camping on the desolate tundra of Baffin Island in 1988 as I waited to climb the west face of Thor in the eternal light of Arctic summer. The feeling of isolation while soloing the 1400-meter wall and the wild and natural view from the summit far exceeds what can be felt on El Capitan. Two winters later, climbing Patagonia’s Fitz Roy in the worst weather imaginable on earth taught me courage to face nature alone. Soloing in the Himalaya bestowed on me even more. A rapid free solo of a mixed route in winter on Ama Dablam’s west face, where there is no big wall climbing, made me feel like I was a ballet dancer on a mountain; it also taught me to quickly assess a mountain’s weaknesses. My southwest face ascent of Cho Oyu in 1994 was an experience akin to climbing to outer space. The view of Everest’s north face from the deserted summit gave me a serenity that made me consider staying there for the rest of my life. Two years later, though I failed in an attempt on Makalu’s west face, I satisfied my dream of opening an aesthetic route on a steep wall on a high mountain. So, I wondered if Kasum Kanguru’s east face could be added to my list of successful wall ascents. I also wondered if I could recover some of the confidence I might have lost on Makalu.

The shock that greeted me upon my arrival in Lukla was the high cost of porter’s fees to make the carry to Kasum Kanguru’s Base Camp. According to the locals, five porters had died in an avalanche at a 4500-meter pass, which apparently justified the quantum jump in their fees. Even though I had worked as a porter on Japan’s Mt. Fuji and so understood their feelings, the high cost still hurt: the economic downturn in the Japanese economy had filtered down to us climbers as well. Nevertheless, the caravan went smoothly, and I walked apart from friends and the porters part of the way to absorb the ambiance of the Himalaya.

Base Camp was set up on April 14, 1998, at 4600 meters, where occasional crumbling seracs impressed upon me the scale of Himalayan mountains. I stayed healthy at Base Camp, thanks to daily vitamins. In contrast, the weather, possibly because of El Niño, displayed an unwelcome pattern of snow every afternoon. This put a premium on a strong motivation to succeed, without which there would be no chance of success.

I studied the wall, adapting to altitude during the inclement weather, and ultimately reached 5700 meters on the classic southeast face. In the meantime, I decided to put the route on the east face, though I eventually moved it farther to the right for safety reasons. On such big walls, the originally chosen line often turns out to be impossible or unwise.

I started out for the east face on my birthday, April 21, immediately after a snowfall. As always with a solo trip, there was no need to accommodate anyone else’s schedule. I had only to watch the sun, make the necessary preparations, and head for the summit. I took two ice axes, crampons, the indispensable helmet, five rock pitons, six ice screws, four nuts, 80 meters of six-mm rope, bivy sack, camera, spare gloves and socks, and some food. I already knew that the 1200-meter wall had 600 meters of mixed climbing above the first 600 meters of rock and that it would be dangerous for a slow climber.

I felt the usual tension as I rounded the moraine and headed for the start of the rock. Leaving the ski poles behind, I windmilled my arms, put away the gloves, and started climbing. The 5.9 start required finger strength and left me wishing for some chalk. The rock was dry, but, with no good cracks, the climbing required the utmost concentration. Luckily, the few steep sections were all quite short, though I still needed to climb them without the pack, which I hauled up after with the rope. It became clear that good technique is the overriding requirement for climbs like this, and that physical strength is needed only to execute the technique.

I needed to hurry because of the danger of rockfall when the sun came up. I was especially worried about the V-shaped wall leading up to the central plateau, where numerous bits of rock and ice fell. Its exit was a chimney that required strenuous moves as I stemmed on rock while searching for suitable ice in the cracks for my axe.

The upper mixed portion consisted of rock slabs and steep ice with seracs threatening any access to the ridge. In order to minimize danger, I climbed the uppermost part in the evening, but it soon became difficult to pick out suitable lines in the new moon. Climbing in the dark restricts one’s vision to only the area illuminated by headlamp; although the steepness may be exaggerated by the limited view, it is easy to concentrate on just the immediate problem.

I entered a steep couloir and looked up to see a huge serac that seemed to be waiting to fall on me. I thought about climbing faster to avoid the danger, but the snow was just too soft to allow that. Cautiously, I gained height little-by-little, occasionally being able to glance back at Peak 43, but then I hit the blue ice in the last section of the couloir, where tension seemed to restrict my field of vision.

I was breathing hard now, especially since I was still carrying the unused climbing rope. Most disappointing was the fact that when I thought I had arrived at where I could escape out of the couloir onto the ridge, nothing but seracs hung above me. I had to rappel from an ice screw, then traverse to the next couloir to the right.

The final climb to the summit was not particularly dramatic, but the intense cold, the hint of light in the sky, and occasional lightning over Mera were enough to emphasize the insignificance of my existence. After caching unnecessary gear, I arrived at the summit at 2 a.m., 22 hours after leaving Base Camp. I spent only one or two minutes on top taking pictures before starting down through a fantasy panorama of snow-covered peaks. I felt satisfied, even though I could see higher mountains.

After the euphoria of reaching the summit, I had to work up my adrenaline in order to concentrate on the long descent. The initial rappels from a bollard and then an ice screw were followed by difficult down climbing, all the while battling tangled ropes and telling myself to stay in control. When I reached the lower rock section, the sun began to soften the consolidated snow, increasing the objective danger. This, coupled with the realization that I was running out of pitons, caused me to risk moving toward Peak 43, where I rapidly down climbed a line amidst falling rocks. I was nearly exhausted, but I couldn’t rest until I was out of danger. I finally stopped on a green hill below the moraine to enjoy a chocolate and rest.

Amidst the beauty of flowers and grass on this rocky knoll, I admired the view (unconsciously looking for routes and holds at the same time) of the west face of Mera, which I had challenged six years earlier. It was not until I returned to Base Camp, 35 hours after the start, that I uttered the words, “I did it.”

As I think back on it now, even though it sounds pretty good to hear the words, “the first ascent of the east face of Kasum Kanguru,” it was not an especially wonderful line. It was a technical challenge, all right, but at the expense of objective danger that would keep me from recommending it as a good climb. It was simply a route that reaffirmed my ability to challenge a big wall. I think I have overcome my sense of failure on Makalu and would consider a bigger climb in the Himalaya next year. I have now done ten Himalayan climbs in eight successive years, but alpine-style climbing, with its constant sense of discovery, affords no chance to rest. There are always other mountain ranges and climbs that pass through my consciousness: Sea of Dreams, Grand Illusion, Cerro Torre, etc., etc….

Rats—I wish I had unlimited funds and physical strength….

Summary of Statistics

Area: Nepal Himalaya

New Route: Never-Ending Story (VI 5.9 AI4, 1200m) on the east face of Kasum Kanguru (6370m), April 21-22, 1998, Yasushi Yamanoi, solo

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