American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Nepal, Ganesh Himal, Kangchenjunga, First Female Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1999

Kangchenjunga, First Female Ascent. My husband, Gary Pfisterer, and I led an international expedition to climb the north face of Kangchenjunga (8586m) in the spring. We were a small team of three Americans (Gary, Chris Shaw, Tim Horvath), one Canadian (Paul Malo), and two British (Jonathan Pratt and myself).

We left Kathmandu on March 21 and traveled for 20 hours to Basantapur before trekking for 13 days through a beautiful unspoiled region of Nepal to our Base Camp at Pang Pema (5000m). The team started work on the climb immediately, although Paul was forced to descend for a while due to serious altitude sickness. We climbed the Czech Route on the north face using a lightweight approach with no porters above Base Camp and no supplementary oxygen. We established fixed camps at 5800 meters and 6800 meters with a temporary acclimatization camp at 5400 meters. We dug a snow cave for Camp II at 6800 meters to avoid heavy spindrift avalanching off the Rock Band.

The main technical difficulties were the Ice Building at 6000 meters (150 meters of 40° blue ice) and the Rock Band (6800 - 7000m). We fixed both sections, but ropes on the Ice Building were frequently cut or buried by avalanche debris. The Rock Band was the crux of the climb with 50 meters of Grade 5 ice followed by rock pitches up to 5.9 in difficulty. It took five days to fix 400 meters of rope here.

Our first two summit attempts in late April and early May were thwarted by deep snow above the Rock Band (though we reached 7700m on the second attempt). It was frustrating to turn around with the summit in view, but our rate of ascent was too slow in such deep snow to realistically expect to reach the summit.

Paul returned home in early May, and the remaining five of us set out again in perfect weather on May 14. Our spirits plummeted when we arrived at Camp I to find that one tent had blown away, but we found it intact down a crevasse about 400 meters below camp. Conditions above the rock band were much improved, and we made good progress climbing alpine-style and pitching camps at 7400 meters and 7800 meters just beneath the Croissant rock.

Summit day dawned crisp and clear, and we left high camp between 4:30 and 5 a.m. We were distressed to pass the bodies of two Japanese climbers, who we later discovered had died on descent from the summit two days earlier. Conditions were good, but climbing at that altitude and the prior summit attempts had taken its toll on Gary, who was forced to turn around at 8450 meters. I continued on alone, passing Jonathan, Chris and Tim on their way down from the summit.

On the final summit ridge, I felt small and vulnerable knowing that one false move could send me hurtling down the south face. I reached the summit at 2:20 p.m. with mixed emotions: relief and elation at having finally made it, but disappointment not to be sharing this summit with Gary. Safely back at Base Camp, the reality of our success sunk in. Four of the team had reached the summit. Chris and Tim had climbed their first 8000er. Jonathan had now climbed the world’s five highest mountains, and I’d made the first female ascent of Kangchenjunga, the last 8000-meter peak to be climbed by a woman.

Ginette Harrison, United Kingdom

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