American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The South Face of Dhaulagiri

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  • Publication Year: 2000

The South Face of Dhaulagiri

An interview with Tomaž Humar

by Antonella Cicogna, Italy

translated by Emanuele Pellizzari, with Christian Beckwith

The south face—or, more accurately, the south-southeast face—of Dhaulagiri I sweeps up over 4000 meters to end at the 8167-meter summit of the seventh highest mountain in the world. It is a broad concavity of a wall, steep and dangerous, pocked by large active seracs and, at over 7000 meters, cut by a 300-meter swath of fractured rock. The eight-kilometer- long southeast ridge defines its rightmost boundary, while on the left, a more complex architecture composed of various pillars and buttresses converges at a broad plateau at ca. 7300 meters. From this plateau, the cleaner lines of the southwest ridge continue to the summit, forming the border of the south face on its left side.

Both the southeast and southwest ridges were first climbed in 1978 in separate expedition-style efforts by Japanese teams. Rising from the South Col, the Southwest Ridge (or South Pillar, as it is known in Japan) was first attempted in the pre-monsoon of 1975 by a team led by Takashi Amemiya. The effort ended low on the route when five men, including two Sherpas and a local porter, were killed by an avalanche as they slept in Camp I. Three years later, Amemiya returned to try the same line. The expedition left Pokhara with a team of 450 porters in late February. Two months after establishing base camp, five members made it to the top on May 10 and 11. One man was killed in the ascent.

In the post-monsoon of the same year, Seiko Tanaka led an 18-member expedition to the southeast ridge. Described by Gaston Rébufatt as “[i]ncredibly long and technically very difficult,” the ridge had already rebuffed two strong American efforts to climb it, including one in 1969 that claimed seven lives. Though the summit was reached on October 19 and 20 by six members of Tanaka’s team, it came at a high cost: three members were killed in September in an avalanche between camps IV and V, and the climbing leader, Katsuyoshi Kogure, died ferrying loads on October 20 on the same stretch.

The south face proper saw its first ascent in 1981. On October 15, after nearly two weeks of reconnaissance, Yugoslavians Stane Belak Srauf, Cene Bercic and Emil Tratnik started out from a base camp at 3924 meters. The trio climbed for five days on the right side of the south face before joining the Southeast Ridge route at the rock band at 7185 meters. They continued up the ridge for four more days, reaching their 7950-meter high point near the junction of the Southeast and Northeast ridges (the mountain’s normal route, climbed in 1960 by a predominantly Swiss expedition for the first ascent). In increasingly unstable weather and leaving behind their tent, food and stove, they began their descent of the northeast ridge. Four days of open bivouacs in strong storms followed before they reached the base of the mountain. By the time they regained safety in the village of Kali Pani, they had gone six days without food.

In the post-monsoon of 1986, Eugeniusz Chrobak led a predominantly Polish team that established the second line on the south face. The team set up base camp at 3800 meters on September 16. The challenge began with the 1200-meter rock wall on the prominent buttress just left of the center of the face. There, they encountered sustained climbing up to 5.8 on rock “so friable that a bolt hole could be made with a few blows.” Next came an ice rib of 60 to 70 degrees with passages up to 85 degrees; 3200 meters of fixed rope was used to this point. The upper part of the buttress involved mixed pitches up to 5.7 before the broad plateau at ca. 7500 meters was reached. Camp V on the plateau was established on October 30 by Maciej Berbeka and Mikolaj Czyzewski. During the night, the wind tore their tent apart. The next morning, Berbeka climbed alone over easy snow to reach the 1978 South Pillar/Southwest Ridge route. Though the way was now open to the summit, bad weather and lack of time forced the team to give up, and they retreated back down their route to base camp.

Soloing in the strict sense of the word means that one is alone at all times above base camp. On June 2, 1981, Japanese Hironobu Kamuro achieved the summit via the normal route. He was accompanied to his first high camp at 5720 meters by two teammates, and his arrival at the end of the spring climbing season allowed him to use fixed ropes and a tent left behind by another team who had just left the mountain. On October 19, 1990, American George Lowe reached the summit, also via the Northeast Ridge route. Nuru Sherpa had accompanied him to 6400 meters, but the day he summited there was no one else above base camp. His descent to his bivy tent at 7280 meters, which he reached three hours after dark, was carried out under difficult conditions with poor visibility and strong winds.

On September 26, 1999, Slovenian Tomaž Humar arrived on the north side of Dhaulagiri by helicopter. The traditional post-monsoon season had not even begun at this point; heavy rains and snowfall had continued through September. Unsettled conditions would linger into early October, followed by more stormy days in the middle of the month brought about by a cyclone in nearby India. Indeed, hampered by the weather, the majority of the post-monsoon Himalayan expeditions would accomplish no noteworthy climbing whatsoever.

Humar’s expedition included equipment for a live broadcast of his climb over the internet, a film to be made from base camp and radio communication with base camp to aid in route-finding during his climb. He acclimatized on the normal Northeast Ridge route, climbing to Camp I (5800m) on September 29 and 30 and then to Camp III (7300m) on October 10-12. On October 15, Humar was flown by helicopter to Base Camp at 3800 meters on the south side of the mountain. On October 25—the day after Dawa Sherpa and British climber Ginette Harrison were killed in an avalanche while attempting the normal route on the other side of the mountain—he began his ascent on the south face of Dhaulagiri, leaving BC at 5 p.m. with gear and food for ten days. His plan: with only a 45-meter static 5-mm Kevlar rope, three Friends, four screws and five pitons, he would solo everything, foregoing self-belays. When the climbing was too difficult to achieve with his pack, he would leave it behind, climb up, fix the line, then descend to retrieve the pack.

Climbing throughout the night of the 25th, Humar reached ca. 4600 meters at the base of the huge narrow gully that cuts through the lower part of the south face. In the early hours of October 26, he made various attempts to overcome the gully via an ice line. He continued his efforts for the rest of the day, stopping at 5 p.m. to wait for the return of cooler temperatures. His efforts, which began again at 11 p.m., were also unsuccessful. He stopped to bivouac at 2 a.m.

The next day, at 8 a.m., Humar decided to rock climb the first pillar to the right of the great gully. This he managed to do with a final traverse estimated to be M7. He bivouacked under the second pillar at 4 a.m.

On October 28, Humar left first thing in the afternoon for the second pillar, climbing the rest of the day and into the night on difficult ground up to M7+. He bivouacked at 2 a.m. in a cave to avoid avalanches. The next day, avalanches of ice, rock and snow continued to fall in the central part of the wall. He had hundreds of ridges to cross, one after another, before he could make his fourth bivy. On October 30, he pushed on, traversing over a series of frightening seracs that he dubbed “the Praying Mantis” before putting up his tent inside a huge crevasse at ca. 7100 meters, on the Praying Mantis’s head.

The route to this point had followed his vision of a direct line on the south face, but now, on his seventh day, Humar saw the great horizontal rock band above him and realized that it would take two or three days to overcome this formidable barrier. Instead, he traversed to the right some 1000 meters to the southeast ridge, where he bivouacked at ca. 7300 meters. On November 1, he left the tent and the majority of his equipment behind and traversed back out onto the south face. At around 7600 meters, he climbed through mixed ground, drytooling on terrain he estimated to be around M5-M6 before bivying at 7800 meters in his sleeping bag. At 2:33 p.m. the next day, he reached the highest point of his climb at ca. 8000 meters when he exited onto the southeast ridge. From there, he joined the normal Northeast Ridge route for his descent, spending the night in a tent of an American expedition at 7300 meters (Camp III). On November 3, he descended to Camp I at 5700 meters, where other members of the expedition had come to meet him. They then waited for a helicopter, which arrived the next day to bring him to Pokhara.

The following is an interview with Italian journalist Antonella Cicogna, conducted in Humar’s home in Kamnik, Slovenia, after the climb. (Certain details were subsequently added to the interview by Humar via e-mail.)


Antonella Cicogna: How do you rank your climb of Dhaulagiri?

Tomaz Humar: The south face has everything. It’s the highest face of Nepal, damned overhanging and steep. It’s the face par excellence, more than 4000 meters of climbing, the dream of the super-strong [Stane Belak] Srauf. The idea was also bom thanks to him. I chose it for this reason. It’s my nirvana. I place it at the top of my present climbs because of [the initial] 1700 meters of rock as well. ... I don’t love climbing solo on rock, because I’m too slow.

How was the start?

Hard. I was afraid. Really, you can’t figure this face out until it’s above you, until you are in the middle of it. It’s immense, 4000 meters of practically liquid ice, of snow, of frighteningly rotten rock. This climb was something unknown, even though I had studied it in all the details. The face was different compared to my photos of 18 years ago. It was too warm; my initial plan was to climb on frozen lines of ice, but conditions were prohibitive. Many plans on paper changed radically when I found myself in action. I tried to forecast different scenarios, particularly over 7000 meters. So I brought with me 45 meters of [5-mm] Kevlar [rope], five pitons, three Friends, four ice screws, some slings, many carabiners. I left BC at 3800 meters a day after the full moon. It was October 25.

In your own plans, where did you expect to first bivouac?

My goal was to make my first bivy after ice climbing the great narrow gully that furrows the lower part of the south face. But I was not even at the foot of the gully when three very difficult rock bands presented themselves. Once I got to the base of the gully, the first real problems started.

What was the altitude then?

I was at 4600 meters. But I can’t swear about the altitude. I didn’t have an altimeter with me and everything is so enormous on a face [like that] that you lose a sense of things. Among the altitudes I remember with some precision is the one of October 31, the sixth bivouac. Because [by then] I had reached the Japanese [Southeast Ridge] route, so I had more precise reference points. And it was also the day when [Janez] Jeglic disappeared on the west face of Nuptse W2 in 1997 when we were together. I prayed for him.

What about once you were at the base of the great gully?

I lost my sense of time. I tried all night to overcome this gully via ice, pausing now and then. Avalanches and lots of water continued to pour down on me, soaking me. By this point it was about 5 a.m. I stopped for three hours and then started again, but the ice line was impractical. At 5 p.m. on October 26 I decided that the only possibility was to wait for night and then go on with the cold[er temperatures]. I waited until 11 p.m. I started to climb 15, maybe 20 meters on steep ice, but the pillar was not adhered to the rock. It broke loose, it swayed, it felt like climbing on a swing. Water kept pouring down on me with the snow, even in the middle of the night. I was frozen solid. The only way up was to stay on the right side of the gully and find a route on the rock pillar, but I decided to start again with the light of day and at 2 a.m. I made my first bivouac.

So, on October 27, in the morning, you started rock climbing what you call the “first pillar”?

Yes, it was 8 a.m. on the third day. On the easy parts I climbed with the pack. On the harder leads, I left it at the belay to retrieve later. I used the static Kevlar 5-mm rope only for rappelling. On overhangs I rappelled using one carabiner on the rope. I climbed without rest. Three avalanches hit me, but in the early afternoon I got to a mixed section. From this spot I thought I saw a good ledge. “Here we are! I found the way,” I shouted over the radio to Stipe Bozic. So I descended, picked up the pack again and soloed back up, and I still had these enormous black walls to climb. I kept climbing up, and it was almost dark. I had to climb some very thin couloirs, almost rotten, of ice, snow and terrible rock. It was very difficult (M6-) with the heavy pack. But I made it. I was convinced I was out of [the hard parts]. But instead, I found myself facing a very delicate traverse, thin hard ice, 70- to 80-degree aid, and right in the middle of it [there was] a rock formation like a big coconut, a huge coconut, blocking the way. It was dark. It must have been about 7 p.m. I was forced to climb it like a chimpanzee. At a certain point I could go neither forward nor back. There were no cracks. So I placed a single Friend in between the rock and ice on top of the coconut and hung on it, and [makes a sound] giiing giiing started to make a small pendulum in this part which overhangs like a balcony, swinging on the Friend while the protection creaked under my weight. It was crazily exposed, a 20-25 meter traverse. There was nothing to hang on to. One of the most dangerous things I’ve ever done. I rated it AO, but it doesn’t really matter. At the end of this traverse, under a little overhang, I was forced to stop and wait. I waited for hours, from 8 p.m. until 1 a.m. Above was hell: avalanches, falling stones, ice. It was the warmest temperatures of the entire climb. I was hit many times by snow and four times by serac avalanches. At this point, I was sure that I was finished, because I was hanging on ice screws. Then, finally, I managed to get out, and climbed on mixed ground (M7) to the second pillar, where I made my second bivouac. The last avalanches only missed me by about ten minutes.

Was the M7 traverse the hardest part of the climb?

No. The worst came later, on the second pillar on October 28.1 started early in the afternoon. It’s shorter than the first pillar, but with pitches that were truly extreme for me, up to VII [5.10d] and M7+. In the beginning, the rock was worse than rotten; it was all flakes. I never managed to get any gear worth trusting: when I rappelled to get my pack, I kept one hand on the rope and the other on the rock [in case the anchor gave way].

I knew I had to climb this thing before nightfall. I climbed, rappelled and climbed again without any protection. And where it was overhanging, it was fatiguing as hell to make my gloves slide on the rope. (Twisting a glove around the rope to descend is one of my basic tricks that I use when I climb solo on delicate and loose rock.) I was forced to take my gloves off, and I smashed my hands. They hurt badly.

By now I was in the upper part of the second pillar. I had risked much at this point. My leg hurt as well. I was hit by a big piece of ice at the beginning of the day and the violence was such that I thought I had broken it. At a certain point I couldn’t progress any more. I was literally beneath continuous water- and snowfall. I had to climb a terrifying roof. I somehow cleaned it of snow and with a contortionist’s moves managed to get through it. I was totally drenched. The water was freezing on me, and it shattered into a thousand pieces with every move I made until it seemed as if I were a robot. At this point my toes were completely gone. Frozen. I was stuck again. I had my pack. Dark had fallen. The next 50 meters took two hours. The face was plastered. Ninety degrees steep. And under ten centimeters of powder snow was rock that felt more like sand. It was all dust. I had no idea how I would get up this part. At this point I was really at the “life border,” at the limit between life and death. And after the 50-meter traverse (M7), I came to a snow field. I sat down to rest in a kind of cave, safe from the avalanches that continued to come down a little ways away from me the next morning as well. It was deep dark night; I was at my third bivouac (2 a.m., October 29).

In the most difficult moments, what helped you the most?

God. And a little shoe, that of my son, Tomaž. He’s eight. I always keep it with me, clipped with a carabiner on my pack; it brings me luck on the riskiest climbs. And then, all the messages they sent me by radio. All the e-mails that were sent to me via the web site that was broadcasting my climb live in Slovenian and English.

How much e-mail did you receive?

In the most difficult moments the e-mail was huge. My companions in BC read it to me over the radio. I was surprised to receive messages from unknown people. In total, my web site beat the Slovenian records for hits. On November 2, there were more than 1.7 million hits with 50,000 visitors who were following [my climb]. That day I received 550 e-mails.

Back to the climb. How was it from the third to the fourth bivouacs?

On October 29, ice, rock and snow fell continuously down the center of the face. I had a “million” ridges to surmount. Delicate, one after another. And from where I was I could see this huge serac. It was the head of the great Praying Mantis (I gave names to every serac on the wall), with her horrifying open mouth. Her long legs seemed to stretch out to me, as if she wanted to reach me and hit me with the sharpness of a scythe. I climbed onto a ridge crest. I had to traverse the grand couloir and get to the left. I started out three times. Right in the middle, rockfall began from above, bombardments of ice, landslides. Fortunately my position was protected by a little ridge. I watched as everything passed overhead. Jesus. … But at the end I arrived at the fourth bivouac. Here, with my pocket knife, I pulled out a tooth that had been tormenting me. Unfortunately I started on healthy teeth, but at the end I broke the painful one. I had a dental granuloma; I sucked it out and then went to sleep. The torment was over.

On October 30 you arrived on the head of the Praying Mantis, and there you put your fifth bivouac.

Yes. I didn’t have any particular problems that day. I kept on climbing, crossing frightening seracs. And then, I put up my tent inside a huge crevasse at about 7100 meters. It was the sixth night on the wall.

On October 31 you decided to traverse 1000 meters to get to the Japanese [Southeast] ridge?

It took too many days to get to this point, and now I had very little gas left for the stove. I didn’t want to repeat the adventures of Nuptse, and I knew I had to have some [gas] for the descent as well. At least half a canister. Continuing directly was out of the question. The rock band above was overhanging, terrible rock. I understood that the protection I had left (two Friends and four pitons) wouldn’t have given me even a minimal amount of security. The only thing to do was the traverse. A countless number of couloirs to cross, like organ pipes, with one rock pitch of V [5.7]. In the photos you don’t even see it.… Then I climbed more organ pipes and a mixed couloir up to VI+ [5.10a], and arrived at the Japanese Route. And here, on the ridge at ca. 7300 meters, I found a piton and traces of their climb. I bivouacked nearby.

Did you think you’d get to the summit the next day?

The next day I started out, leaving behind the tent and all unnecessary gear. I wanted to summit light; with a big pack, I was scared the wind would blow me away. I climbed on mixed terrain. At 8 o’clock in the morning at 7350 meters I was forced to climb loose rock (5.10a) and an icy crack without gloves. It was very cold. The weather wasn’t good—too windy. I was scared some lightning would roast me. And at a certain point, at the edge of the east and south faces, the climb was too rocky and difficult. I couldn’t go further. I was halfway between camps VI and VII. I again moved toward the center of the south face. And again, on the very last section, there was an extreme part, a vertical section at 7600 meters, mixed ground. It took all my strength to get through it, dry tooling. (At that altitude, loose rock is not fun.)

Dry tooling at 7600 meters? Maybe you’re the only one in the world?

I don’t know. I only know that at the end, when I decided to bivouac at about 7800 meters, I was so spent I thought I had gotten edema. It was terribly cold. Obviously I didn’t have the tent, only a sleeping bag. Plus my stove did not work anymore, and I was thirsty.

The next day, on November 2 at 2:33 p.m., you exited from the face.

Yes. I popped out on the Southeast Ridge. I found myself on the highest point of my climb at around 8000 meters, and my line on the south face was finished. I had reached my personal nirvana.

And the summit?

The summit would have been the cherry on the cake. And also in the end, the face or summit is not so important. The main goal is coming back home and dreaming on.

Tomaž, what did you expect in the event of success? How was it then?

Personally, I expected to reach my nirvana. But I also knew that this ascent would not have an exclusively personal value. If you climb these kind of faces, there’s a responsibility before all of alpinism. That’s why Stipe Bosic made a film from BC, we documented the climb on the internet and I took photos.

After your nirvana, what will the next climb be?

I look ahead. There are a lot of faces, the Lhotse traverse, the direct line on the west face of Makalu.… The challenges are always there. But it depends on a lot of things, above all on my “third eye.” The money doesn’t matter, nor the difficulties. Whatever the climb, only when

I feel the mountain welcomes me, then will I go.

After [making the first ascent of] Annapurna, Herzog said, “There are other Annapumas [in the lives of men.]” I agree with him. There are still other Dhaulagiris [awaiting me in my life].

Summary of Statistics

Area: Dhaulagiri Himal, Nepal

New Route: The Mobitel Route (VI 5.10d A0 M7+, ca. 4000m) on the south face of Dhaulagiri (8167m), October 25-November 3, 1999, Tomaz Humar, solo

Personnel: Tomaž Humar, Stipe Bosic, Gorazd Suhadolnik, Andrej Kmet, Lado Ogrin, Tomo Drolec, Vinko Bercic, Josko Bojic and Dr. Anda Perdan Tomaž Humar was bom in 1969. He first came in contact with the mountains in 1987, through the Kamnik Alpine Club. He has devoted himself solely to alpinism since 1992, making more than 1,200 ascents, some 60 of which were new routes, solo. Most of these routes remain unrepeated. Often his most difficult ascents are put up solo. He has soloed the Reticent Wall on El Cap, and his Himalayan ascents include a variation to the Japanese route on the southeast face of Ganesh V (with Stane Belak Šrauf), Annapurna I, the Stane Belak Šrauf Memorial Route on Ama Dablam (with Vanja Furlan), Golden Heart on the northwest face of Bobaye (solo), Talking About Tsampa on Loboche East (with Carlos Carsolio and Janez Jeglic), Pumori and the Humar-Jeglic line on Nuptse’s west face. He lives in the town of Kamnik, Slovenia, with his wife and two children, to whom he dedicates his extreme ascents.

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