American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

High Tension on Thalay Sagar

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  • Publication Year: 2000

High Tension on Thalay Sagar

Straight up the north face

by Mikhail Davy, Russia translated by Maxim Rivkin

May 31, 1999. It had been six hours since I started my way along the moraine toward Base Camp on Lake Kedar Tal. My backpack, full of climbing gear and wet clothes, was extremely heavy. We had not been to Base Camp for two weeks, and it was obvious. Before we left, we had to cut holes in the ice on the lake to fetch water. Now there was no ice at all. One could figure out with a glance at my feet that we had not had a single day of rest during the two weeks that we were away. When the trail went uphill, I had to slow down significantly and rest, leaning heavily on my ski poles. It was getting darker, and our trail, which had been barely noticeable in the daylight, was almost invisible.

Suddenly, I noticed that my mood was in sharp contrast to all the difficulties. I was tranquil and happy. We had made it.

It all started two years ago when we got our hands on an issue of the magazine GHM that had a review of the Garhwal mountain region in the Indian Himalaya. From the photos, it was obvious that the Garhwal is a very interesting area with monolithic granite peaks reminiscent of the Lailak and Karavshin regions of the Pamir-Alay, only much higher and often technically difficult due to the transition from solid granite to the unstable and dangerous schist bands in the upper parts of the mountains.

Two walls looked particularly steep and long: the west face of Bhagirathi III and the north face of Thalay Sagar. However, by the time we saw the magazine, rock routes on Bhagirathi had already been pioneered by others, and our friends and competitors Alexander Odintsov, Yuri Koshelenko and Igor Potankin were headed over to climb it as well. The only route that had been climbed on the north face of Thalay Sagar, meanwhile, passed through the ice couloir in the central part of the face; nobody had even tried to climb the rock buttresses.

At first, we planned the expedition for September, 1998. An Indian expedition permit was paid for at an exchange rate of 6.30 rubles for $1 U.S. The very next day—August 17, 1998— was the first day of the huge economic crisis in Russia. Inflation paralyzed the economy for many months, and in a matter of days the Russian ruble depreciated by a factor of four. We quickly ran out of money and had to reschedule the expedition for the spring of 1999.

In February of that year, in Chamonix, we witnessed two Australians receiving the Piolet d’Or for climbing the north face of Thalay Sagar. This only confirmed our opinion that our goal was a worthy one. On the other hand, we were not going to get the Piolet d’Or, since nobody would award two prizes for the same wall.

March and April passed by in turmoil as we looked for money and sponsors and worked on our gear. Finally, all of this was finished, and our small expedition boarded the plane to Delhi with a stopover in Tashkent. Our team was assembled of very strong climbers with substantial high-altitude experience. Victor Ostanin, who currently works as a principal in a sports academy for youth, was a champion climber of the USSR. Alexander Klenov, our captain, is one of the best climbers in Russian alpinism. Alexey Bolotov is a strong high-altitude climber whose resume includes successful ascents of Makalu via the west face, Everest, Khan Tengri and Peak Pobeda. Mikhail Pershin and a partner had just finished a winter ascent of an extremely difficult route on the north face of Ak-Su (See AAJ 1999, pp. 124-132).

Tashkent, as always, was warm and welcoming. We met with old friends and enjoyed strawberries from the local market at ridiculously low prices. After two days spent relaxing, we left Tashkent on the night of May 1. At 6 a.m. in Delhi, it was already too hot, with temperatures above 40° Celcius. We slept in a cool hotel room the whole day, letting Victor and Alexander take care of official business at the Indian Mountaineering Federation.

Early the next morning, we started our journey to the Himalaya. Three days of not-tootiring travel by small bus, with nights spent in Rishkesh and Uttarkashi, passed by almost unnoticed, the effects of traveling in an unfamiliar, exotic country. Our main impression of India was that the country is a big trash dump with piles of garbage on the streets, even in Delhi. Sanitary conditions in little cafes along the road were far from satisfactory. We wished the cuisine were better: there was no beef at all, and everything was very spicy. Walls were covered with old, faded ads for Sony and Pepsi.

On the third day of our bus trip we entered Gangotri, a holy place for many Indians and the last town on our journey. Hundreds of people arrive here every day in overloaded buses and cars, and Gangotri is full of small hotels, motels and other places where one could spend the night. There are a lot of stores on the central street, almost all of them selling religious accessories. From here to Thalay Sagar, it is only 18 kilometers as the crow flies, but nevertheless, because of the mountain’s steepness and inaccessibility, the first ascent was not made until 1979.

With a caravan of porters, we reached Base Camp on Lake Kedar Tal. A little earlier, an Indian expedition had taken the best tent sites, so we had to arrange our camp on the clay of the lakeshore. The sun was hot during the day, forcing us to cover every centimeter of our bodies to avoid sunburn. At night, it usually started to snow, covering camp in a white blanket. By morning, the snow would begin to melt, mixing with the clay to make a wonderful putty that stuck to our boots in thick layers.

In general, BC was not the best place for life, but our minds had already moved on to the beautiful gracious mountain that surrounded the valley. Depending on weather conditions and light, the mountain changed all the time. It could be snow-white, or red and yellow. It could be covered with clouds, or rise above them, lonely and majestic.

We did not have much time to spare. We needed to finish our acclimatization fairly fast. Our fourth or fifth night was spent at 6000 meters on the peak closest to camp. After two days of rest, on May 15, we started our approach to the wall. We had only five ropes with us; we planned to climb without extensive amounts of fixing. Nevertheless, our backpacks were nearly impossible to pick up off the ground, even though we made a number of carries and Victor, who was staying in BC, helped us put them on. Once we were on the route, though, even with most of the gear in our packs, they did not feel as heavy.

On May 16, Alexey and Mikhail went up to cross the bergschrund and prepare the first pitch while Alexander and I packed the portaledge. After lunch, we pulled it and the rest of the gear to the bergschrund. All day long, my eyes turned toward the wall above us. One could only assume how it was going to be up there. But, as we knew from past expeditions, the beginning is the most important part. We would find out more as time went on. The next day we would start our assault on The Wall.

Our spirits were great as we jumared the ropes that had been fixed the day before. We reached the rock under clear skies. Though the wall faces north, it is close to the equator, and around noon we could see the sun above our heads. Alexander took the lead and disappeared around the comer, finding solid granite but occasionally loose rock as well.

After 3 p.m., the weather started to worsen. At first, the snow was fairly light, but it soon changed to a severe storm. In a few minutes, the vertical wall was covered with snow, and the snow that collected above us came down in small avalanches.

We secured our “house,” a portaledge designed by us and made by a Russian company in a hurry. When it was set up, we climbed in, plastered with snow. For several minutes, we caught our breath and defrosted under the roar of avalanches.

As we tried to cook dinner, we found out that our Primus stove did not want to work any more. At first we thought that it was because of the nearly 100 percent humidity inside the portaledge, but later we discovered that the problem had its roots in the very poor quality gasoline we were using. After it had burned, the gasoline left a thick, tar-like residue that plugged everything inside the stove.

We had had difficulties with fuel all along. At first, we were told that we could buy Epigas cartridges in Delhi, but when we arrived we found that just four cartridges were available, for $15 apiece. We were lucky to get a Primus that worked on gasoline instead. During our climb, we had to take it to pieces and clean it of tar twice a day.

The next morning, we moved very slowly: though it was not snowing, the rocks were still plastered. By 3 p.m., snow started to fall again as it had the day before. By this time, Alexander and I had managed to climb only about 90 meters up from where we had spent the night. Fortunately, Alexey and Mikhail had not taken down our portaledge. We rappelled quickly and sat there drying our clothes and listening to the sound of avalanches crashing on the roof. At 5 p.m., the snowfall ended and the sun appeared. We hoped that the weather would be better the next day.

I led. It is always more interesting to lead than to belay, because time passes more quickly. The weather pattern remained the same. At 1 p.m., it began to snow again. Using Russian cams, I climbed to the end of the crack, then came down to the portaledge, which had already been moved higher and set up by my friends. Tomorrow we would have to drill and then pendulum right to another crack system.

The next day Mikhail was on lead, working as the “woodpecker” while Alexey belayed. Alexander and I remained in the tent because the chances that Mikhail and Alexey would be able to use all the available ropes were not great, which meant that there was no need to move the portaledge. After lunch, as if on schedule, it snowed again. A couple of hours later, Mikhail and Alexey rappelled down. Mikhail was wet and mad: by the time they returned, the sun had reappeared.

Alexey and I went out for a second shift. I hooked on rock for some 30 meters (we had designed and built our own hooks) before switching back and forth from rock to ice higher up. Above, an inside comer looked like it would be possible to climb without hooks. I placed the last ice screw and rappelled down to the portaledge at dusk.

On May 21, our pace was a little bit faster as we jugged a few pitches fixed the day before, then pushed the route three pitches higher. The climbing was becoming less monolithic, but, as a result, we had to contend with more snow. Mikhail, meanwhile, was having strange problems with his eyes. He could not see straight ahead and had to rely on peripheral vision. Later, the doctors decided that it was the result of sunburn, but Mikhail had worked in sunglasses almost the whole time. We discussed the option of going down, but Mikhail insisted on going up, so we decided to continue our ascent. From then on, he always went third.

I led the first four pitches of the next day’s climbing on snow-covered rock. Snowfall after noon was by now perceived as a regular thing, and it no longer put a stop to our progress. At the end of the day, I led an overhang of loose, frozen-together rock. We could tell we were at high altitude because the snow no longer stuck to the rock, falling instead in ceaseless powder avalanches.

On May 23, the snow started falling early in the morning, and visibility was down to about 30 meters. However, we could not wait for good weather: only half of our gas was left, and we had a long way to go to the summit. Keeping this in mind, we packed camp and started climbing up into the unknown. At the end of the day, we reached the top of the couloir that all the teams who tried to climb the north face before us had picked for their climb. For the first time, we saw signs left by other climbers. On the left of the couloir hung a medium-sized haul bag. When I finished jugging and unroped to move over to it, I found in the bag an almost new Hella Sport tent, probably left behind by an unsuccessful French expedition.

At night, the weather became slightly better, and visibility improved. The view of what lay ahead did not make anybody happy: above loomed a belt of black slate that formed a great roof. There was no good way up. It was clear now why so many teams had turned back here, while the ones who had made it had gone to the left or right.

It snowed the next day from morning to night. We were worrying more and more about our chances to reach the summit. The supplies were getting low. We could go for a few days longer without food, but without fuel—and therefore without water—there was nothing we could do at such an altitude. The climbing looked steeper ahead, and the weather was not improving. But as long as we could, we had to go on. We made it to the top of the couloir and, near nightfall, set up camp one pitch above its end.

May 25. Alexander and I worked three pitches up on bright red granite and by the end of day reached the black rock. Straight over our head, the overhang extended more than 20 meters out from the wall! It seemed that it might be possible to climb through the first roof farther to the right, but we could not see anything higher up.

This is where we wanted to set up our last camp before the summit. There were no more than four pitches of rock climbing left, but the question of whether we would be able to get through them or not remained.

May 26. We moved camp to the end of the route prepared the day before. By lunchtime, Alexander had climbed through the first roof. The rock was very unstable, and it was hard to find places for pitons. Alex mostly used cams for protection, often stuffing them between loose rocks. As I approached him, I could see that the edge of the roof above us was a giant lump of granite that must have weighed many tons. It had broken off, then miraculously jammed not too far from its original home. Right beneath it hung our portaledge. Thanks to the portaledge’s great design and strong fabric, small rocks bounced off it—but we joked that “there would be no wounded” if the giant rock fell down on us.

The climbing immediately above remained about the same. We decided to traverse right on small ledges to make sure that camp and whoever was seconding were safe.

Until now, we had climbed in thick fog. But suddenly the clouds dropped, presenting us with a fantastic sight. We found ourselves beneath a bright sunset, looking out on a snow-white plain of clouds. The nearest peaks were hidden in clouds, and only far away, probably in China, could we see mountains poking through. For the first time, confidence that we would reach the summit the next day arose in us.

Clear skies and cold greeted us the morning of May 27. We left the portaledge behind and started our summit bid. We had one rope left. In our backpacks were only still and video cameras and warm clothes. Or not—by this time we were wearing all the clothes we had. We had to reach the summit because there was no gasoline left, and we had only enough fuel in the Epigas cartridges for two more nights. And there was the long descent to keep in mind.

We jugged pitches fixed the day before, then climbed one more straight-forward pitch— and we were on the ridge! Strong winds greeted us and the route did not get any simpler. We had speculated earlier that we would find a snow slope on the ridge, but we were wrong. We had to go around a gendarme via a quite difficult chimney on the left and then climb back to our wall. For the first time we found a piton—probably that of the first ascent, because that team, too, had climbed this ridge.

At last, the summit snow dome appeared. It was impossible to determine how far away it was. Some believed that there were about 30 meters left, others, 300. In reality it was about 70 meters, but we could not climb those meters quickly. Indeed, we were up to almost 7000 meters, with ten days of work behind us, during which time we had not once stood on a flat surface.

But any journey ends sooner or later, and we were finally on the summit. Far below we could see our BC on the lakeshore. There was noticeably less ice on the lake than when we had started. We could see that Victor, our communication officer Sherma and the Indian cooks were watching us. We established a radio link and accepted their congratulations, but we did not feel any special joy. We were facing a descent via the same way we had come up. In twilight, we rappelled down to our tent, but by the time we reached it, we had no energy to pull the ropes. We left them for the next day.

A few hours passed by in the morning while we retrieved the ropes and dismantled camp. We rappelled a few pitches down to the couloir and, instead of staying on our route of ascent, decided to drop into it. It was easier for the descent. After three or four rappels, we set up our portaledge on the side of the couloir. It was not a very safe spot, but the couloir was very steep and we did not expect too many flying rocks. However, we caught one. Everyone but me was inside the portaledge. Suddenly, a huge table-sized rock warmed by the late-day sun broke from the wall and with a roaring sound started its way down.

Screaming “rock!,” I ducked, hiding under my helmet and backpack. The rock hit the wall and exploded. Only one four-pound piece reached us, stroking Alexey’s leg through the tent walls. Once again, we thanked our good tent and the company that made it for us. If a rock like that had hit somebody’s leg directly, one could almost guarantee a shattered knee. In our case, the rock did not even pierce the roof. To provide additional protection from falling rocks, we decided not to clean the snow from the roof, but fortunately, nothing more fell on us.

In the morning, we made tea using the last of our Epigas, then started rappelling. We wanted to spend the night on level ground, but we still had almost 20 pitches to go. Victor would have come to the ABC to bring us water and food, but he had no gasoline or cartridges, either. We had taken it all, leaving him only kerosene for the BC stove.

On the way down we saw loops, ice screws, ropes stacked between rocks and frozen into the ice. At one belay station hung an old bag. Inside (oh, miracle!), there were several Epigas

Cartridges. Unfortunately, they were all covered with ice. Mikhail started chipping the ice off the cartridges, puncturing almost all of them, hut we recovered one undamaged. We were going to have hot food tonight!

At noon the next day, we noticed Victor. It looked as if he would reach ABC in less than an hour. We rappelled one, two, three pitches, but Victor remained in the same place.

The last rappel turned out to be a very long one. All the ropes were stretched and it was impossible to hear one another. Somehow we reached the snow and radioed Victor. He had walked on the glacier and found himself in between crevasses. The snow bridges over the crevasses were half melted and would not hold him anymore. He could move neither up nor down. We needed to go rescue him.

For the last few hundred meters to ABC, the bags rolled ahead of us as we held on to them with our ropes. Two of them cut loose almost simultaneously. One rolled straight ahead, while the other went left, disappearing into a crevasse. We would not be able to find it until the next morning. With the last of our energy, we brought our backpacks to the tent and, with indescribable satisfaction, took off our harnesses. We had not taken them off, even for a minute, for almost two weeks. It would have been nice to see Victor there with boiled potatoes and fresh bread, but there was nothing we could do.

Alexander and I roped up and went down, leaving Alexey and Mikhail to cook tea and food. Half an hour later, after falling to our waists in crevasses a couple of times, we reached Victor. He was frozen like a dog from staying in one spot for half a day. Hugs and congratulations made us feel a little bit better, but we still had to go back up to the tent, which took about an hour and a half. Our legs were unwilling to move.

It was dark when we reached the tent. Only there did it become obvious to us that we could finally congratulate each other. We had reached the goal toward which we had worked the whole time. On the north face of Thalay Sagar there is now a new Russian route: High Tension.

Later, there were many events: a difficult return to BC, a fun-filled party with a cappella international songs, dances and, of course, lots of whiskey. After that, there was the walk down to Gangotri, the trip back to Delhi, the worries at different airports. But all of this was mitigated by our return home and our thoughts of new plans and new mountains.

Summary of Statistics

Region: Garhwal, Indian Himalaya

New Route: High Tension (ABO, 7b A3+, 1400m) on the north face of Thalay Sagar (6904m), May 17-May 27, Alexander Klenov, Alexey Bolotov, Mikhail Davy, Mikhail Pershin

Personnel: Alexander Klenov, Alexey Bolotov, Mikhail Davy, Mikhail Pershin, Victor Ostanin (BC manager) Mikhail Davy, 34, started climbing in 1983 while attending the Sverdlovsk Mining Institute. He has been an International Master of Sport since 1994. His 25 Russian Grade 6 ascents include ten new routes. In the Russian championships, he has taken first place five times, second place five times, and third place twice. Many of his routes on peaks in the CIS remain unrepeated. He is currently ranked third among Russian alpinists in technical class and fourth overall. Since 1992, all his ascents, with the exception of one in 1995, were put up with Alexander Klenov. He lives with his wife, Olga, and their ten-year-old son, Serguei, in Yekaterinburg, Russia, where he owns a small real estate company.

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