American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

The North Face of Kangtega, Perseverence on a Himalayan Wall

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  • Publication Year: 2001

The North Face of Kangtega

Perseverance on a Himalayan wall

Valeri Babanov, Russia

Kangtega…. What does it mean to me?

Some time has passed. I’m trying to bring meaning to my own work on the north face of Kangtega, to appraise it. Victory or defeat? But it is difficult to answer this question in a word just yet. I am sure the answer will come to me in a while.

The expedition can be divided in my mind into two parts: the first, up to May 10, when I attempted Kangtega’s north face alpine style, and the second part which took place after May 10 and included my ascent up to the northwest ridge (climbed by a Japanese team in 1979*). The second part differs greatly from the first, both for its tactics and for the quick acceptance of decisions.

On April 9 my wife Olga and I arrived in Kathmandu from Moscow. Our expedition consisted of three members: me, Olga, who would be the camera and video operator, and Sanga, our cook. Born in a village near Lukla, Sanga knew his district perfectly well and could settle any affairs with porters and make any necessary purchases. His assistance was essential, especially when a critical situation with the ropes occurred (which I will write about later).

Having settled the practical affairs and obtained the permit for a solo ascent of Kangtega from the Ministry of Tourism, our team flew to Lukla. The next day, April 13, we began, accompanied by 12 porters. The approach took five days, winding through places with incomprehensible names such as Chatra, Koty, and Tangnan. Though it was very beautiful, mentally I was already on the wall. While my feet went along the endless paths of the Himalaya, my hands, in my imagination, swung ice tools and hammered pitons on the north face of Kangtega.

On April 17 we established our Base Camp in a small glade near a fine little lake at about 4700 meters. We took Kantsa Sherpa, Sanga’s friend, onto the working staff as a “kitchen boy.” Everybody seemed to be pleased. The ordinary—and, at the same time, unusual—life of an expedition began.

Within the next three or four days I planned to make an approach toward “my” mountain and also to climb Mera Peak to acclimatize. Every day the weather was roughly the same: it would be sunny until 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning, then snow after dinner. After a sortie toward Kangtega, I realized that it would take us many hours to overcome the endless stone obstructions of the Hinku Nup Glacier’s lateral moraines. Kangtega, whose white pyramidal summit I had not yet seen, seemed distant and inaccessible. Meanwhile, I acclimatized on the slopes of Mera Peak.

I began to prepare for my ascent of Kangtega. My task was to organize a high-altitude camp as close to the north face as possible. At my disposal were some photos I managed to find and the contemplation (in my memory) of Kangtega from the valley next to Dingboche, where I had been in the autumn of 1998. The remoteness of Kangtega troubled me, excited me. I was eager to have answers to my questions. In 1998, I only dreamed of Kangtega; now, I could hardly contain my impatience to reach it.

It took me seven hours to find a way through the moraine’s obstructions to reach the place where our Advanced Base Camp would be established at about 5300 meters. “My” wall was not visible from this spot, but the whole long approach to Kangtega, including an icefall at the upper part, was perfectly visible, and I began to estimate how much time it would take. I guessed five or six hours. But I was mistaken. Once again, the Himalaya revealed their scale and unexpectedness. I spent two whole days covering the approach. Most of the time I spent finding a pass through the maze of crevasses and icefall seracs to reach a large snowy plateau that resembled an amphitheater. It is enclosed by the massif of Kangtega’s summits on three sides. Finally, from here, I could see the north face for the first time. I was stunned.

What does the wall look like? It is a creation of nature that reminds every living thing once again that there is something more powerful, more impressive than anything we have ever done before. Looking up at the wall from below, it seemed like the prow of a huge ship was cutting through the ice waves of the glaciers. Everything seemed to be moving toward me. I could begin to feel the sensation even more intensely when scraps of clouds floated by the wall. It seemed in these moments that this bulk of a mountain would run me down and turn me into nothing.

The wall is about 1300 meters high. There are few opportunities for protection and none for rest on the steep rock. In its middle, the wall looks as if it has been broken, becoming slightly lower angled. Above, it again leans its whole weight on you. At the same place, the reign of steep ice begins. It is impossible to understand how the ice, licked by the wind, can retain itself on those rocks. At the top of the wall, the entire ridge is crowned by cornices that fall down from time to time, sweeping everything off their path.

Certainly, everything that I saw impressed me greatly. I was under the spell for hours. After that I got calm and quiet. Mentally I felt like I was becoming part of the wall, beginning to intertwine with it.

After one day’s rest at ABC, I was ready to attempt a solo alpine-style ascent. With two 60-meter ropes, two ice hammers, crampons, pitons, ice screws, two bottles of gas, a stove, a four-day supply of food, a lightweight sleeping bag, and a hammock, I left ABC for the mountain. As I approached the beginning of my route, the sky became darker and darker and soon was covered with low clouds. It was a bad omen. When I hammered in my first piton, snowflakes covered my back. Soon snow began to fall heavily, ceaselessly. Spindrift began to move across the wall. One could not find any shelter, because there was none around. Having climbed 150 meters, I realized that it was impossible to move farther for the day. And I needed to go down quickly so as not to be knocked from the wall.

I decided to spend the night on the glacier opposite the wall, taking shelter behind a large lonely block of ice in the middle of a snow cirque. It snowed all night long and the whole next day. After dinner, because of the bad weather, I decided to go down to ABC and then to BC to have a rest.

Some days later I went up to ABC again and undertook two more attempts, one on May 5 and another on the 8th. Both were in vain. The situation was getting critical. It was nearly the middle of May and I was making no headway. I was driven to despair. I wasted much time at ABC waiting for good weather.

And after each unsuccessful attempt, I tried to understand the reasons for my failures. I felt that something had happened to me, as if I had lost something important. It seemed to me that it did not matter how the situation ended. Apparently, exhaustion was taking its toll. Olga was of the same opinion and suggested that, being in such a condition, I should not decide anything.

But in spite of the chaos of thoughts in my head, I tried to find a way out of the situation all the same. Ideas occurred to me, at first weakly but then with more strength. I realized that I would not be able to climb the complicated wall alpine style in such bad weather. There was only one way out: to change the tactics of ascent. I would have to climb the lower, most complicated part of the wall and fix it with rope. If the weather deteriorated, I would be able to go down quickly. Then, in good weather (I was sure it would come!), I could jumar up to the ice and go on with the ascent toward the ridge and on to the summit. It seemed I could descend via the same route. It was the only possible plan.

Two days later, Sanga and I were talking with the local residents of Tangnan, the settlement nearest BC, about extra ropes. Soon, in addition to my own 160 meters of rope, we had six more ropes totaling 260 meters. We also resupplied ourselves with food, kerosene, and gas.

Another decision was very important for me as well. We moved our ABC higher, placing it at 5600 meters, exactly opposite the north face of Kangtega. Thus the approach to my route dropped from four hours to 30 minutes. It took us two days to establish the bright yellow tent of our new ABC and carry all the necessary gear and equipment onto the glacier.

Everything was ready for the next attempt. The second part of the expedition began for me. I realized that it would not have been easy to “take the wall by surprise,” as I tried to do the first time. Now it would take much tedious work to make the ascent. But every day, even if slowly, I would go up and up.

It was already May 14. There were no clouds in the sky; the weather was favorable for an ascent. I managed to fix 250 meters of rope over the next two days. By the third day of climbing I reached a sloping ice shelf that crosses the lower part of the wall. Having made a 30- meter traverse to the left, I came up against steep rocks that granted me no concessions. It seemed to me that the real work would begin from here.

I slowly began going up a very narrow ice gully that in five or seven meters turned into a steep inside corner filled with ice. There were few cracks here, making it impossible to gather speed. I had a full complement of equipment in my hands, from two ice hammers to rock gear to a bolt kit (I placed five bolts for belay stations and my descent). I began to use skyhooks. The inside corner crossed this part of the wall from the left to the right. I could only go to the left toward long ice streaks that I could see from where I was and onto which I placed all my hope. But they were still a long ways away.

In general I progressed via aid, sometimes managing to make two or three free moves, but no more. All the cracks were filled with ice. I breached 6000 meters, but I could not tell exactly. Here and there I came across some ice smears. I tried to place ice screws for protection, but as a rule I failed, because the screws hit rock after six or seven centimeters.

The conquest of the wall came step by step. It was already my fifth day on the wall; I rested because it snowed the whole day. I had already fixed 330 meters of rope.

The weather the next morning was fine, the sky cloudless, but the wall was covered with snow, and it was very difficult to go on. All the same, I decided to continue preparing the route. The ice was a short distance away. After dinner the weather became worse.

The next day I managed to fix only 20 meters. It snowed the whole following day. As the food supply at ABC was coming to an end, we decided to go down to BC for a short rest. While we rested, Sanga brought extra food and some kerosene from Lukla.

On May 24, Olga and I went up to ABC with a week’s supply of food. It snowed the whole next day. In the tent, I estimated my chances with the weather. The monsoon would probably soon be here. There was little time to wait.

I looked out of the tent at 5 a.m. Oh! My God! There was not a cloud in the sky. And there was Kangtega, completely covered with snow like a fancy white cake. You can’t imagine how much snow there was. I ate breakfast with speed, equipped myself, and went out to the route. Today it was necessary for me to free all the fixed ropes from the week’s snow and try to reach reliable ice. I was awfully tired. It took me five hours to do this hard work. Nevertheless, I went on. The rock was hardly visible because everything was covered with snow and the recent verglas. To find cracks for protection, I had to clean the rock of snow and ice with my hammer. A dark trench of bare rock appeared behind me, cleaned by my hands and stomach.

In three hours of climbing I reached the point where I had guessed the start of the good ice to be. Here I was slightly disappointed: the good ice was actually 40 or 50 meters away, and I was forced to climb technical mixed ground to reach it. But it was enough for today. I was rather tired. The sky became overcast with heavy clouds. I needed to go down before it began snowing. In an hour and a half I was in my tent on the wall. If the weather was fine the next day, it would be necessary to go on.

At night, the sky cleared and stars came into sight. I slept badly, often looking out of the tent, watching the sky and the clouds moving slowly below to see whether it was snowing.

At 5 a.m. I was ready to go out. The sun had not yet risen but it was bright enough to begin working on the wall. I needed to hurry. Nobody knew what the weather would be like the next moment. Today was May 27; at 9 a.m., I was at the end of my ropes at the start of the hard mixed climbing, where I had finished working the day before.

What seemed from below to be the beginning of good ice was really a thin crust on rounded slabs with minimal cracks. I used my ice hammer for aid climbing too. The ice was so thin that I did not dare hit it with my crampons, for it simply went to pieces under my boots. I broke the ice and hooked the tiny shelves with skyhooks or with ice axes. Only at 2 p.m. did I reach the firm ice. It gave me a sense of safety, swinging my tools in such ice. I took heart. Though the ice was very steep in many places (the angle was 70 or 80°), it was nonetheless more pleasant than simply dangling on aid. Here I could feel the presence of forward movement. I succeeded in climbing a little more than 200 meters on the ice.

I was caught by darkness just before the angle of the ice lessened. Of course there were no places for lodging for the night. I had provided for such situations and brought the tent-hammock that I would be able to hang anywhere. Though I was not comfortable in it because my body was squeezed, it was better than no bed at all.

The day had not been a bad one: though clouds moved slowly over Kangtega the whole time, it hadn’t snowed. What the weather would be the next day, nobody knew. We would see what we would see. In any case, it would be necessary to go out earlier.

Having had tea and food, I fell into sleep as if into nonexistence. The night passed slowly. I sometimes slept, but in general it was not clear whether I slept or not.

At the first gleam of daylight I was already fully dressed and ready to go. Having climbed up a little ways, I felt that the ice became less steep; it was pleasure to be on it. I needed to always climb to the left and upward, toward a wide ice gully leading to the ridge. With each pitch, I had to descend for my rucksack. By 9 a.m., the clouds from the valley below began to come up and up. Visibility was still good but the sun was already hidden. Having ascended about 300 meters, I began to hug the right side of the rocks. It seemed to me it was safer to climb here, and the route seemed shorter, too. I guessed it was about 200 or 250 more meters to the ridge.

The ice gully disappeared in mist. I could not see the ridge, though I could guess where it was. I decided to go up a little higher and leave my rucksack there. When I descended, I would retrieve it. The ice again grew steep, reaching 80 degrees. It was easy to climb without the rucksack. Only the 50-meter “tail” of additional rope, which I would use for descent, moved along behind me.

By 2 p.m. it was starting to snow and I was still on the wall. Waves of snow washed over Kangtega, at one moment heavier and the next weaker. The situation did not evoke enthusiasm. I could not see the ridge but it felt somewhere not far from me.

By 5 p.m. I reached the rock belt. Though I had many questions about how to get through it, I found that it was not difficult. Once I made a long traverse to the right and then returned to the left on ice on a narrow, angled streak, I found myself higher than the rock belt.

There remained only a little way to go to reach the ridge—but straight over my head was the only possible way to reach it. On both sides, huge cornices hung down, ready to fall at any moment. I began to force my way upward and at 5:30 p.m. I climbed out on the ridge, rolling in snow, battling against the wind with snow blowing in my face. Surely it was impossible to go to the summit: it was snowing, visibility was not greater than 30 meters and it was already about 6 o’clock in the evening. Soon it would be dark. I needed to go down for my rucksack, otherwise I would simply freeze. I felt how awfully tired I was. But the chief thing now was not to become unnerved.

Having climbed down the rocks a little, I hammered in a piton for the descent. It took me two hours to reach my rucksack. It was almost dark. I was stumbling and had a headache as well, the result, I think, of altitude and the physical exertion of the day. I spent the night hanging. It snowed the whole night with few breaks. Small snow sloughs rustled on the wall, but I was out of danger because I was rather high.

Early the next morning, though it was dark outside the tent, I was already making the long descent. The fixed ropes were more than 700 meters below my feet. I descended, gathering all the equipment on the route, until dark. It was a long day. The weather seemed determined to get worse: the sky was already covered with clouds early in the morning and by 9 a.m. it was snowing. I had to get off the wall as quickly as possible before the weather raged. Only by 6 p.m. did I reach the bergschrund. At last I was safe.

From here it was not far from our tent—20 or 30 minutes, or so I figured. But in reality it took more than an hour. I was simply falling off my feet and needed to sit down every 20 meters. The intensity of the ascent was growing weaker and I was getting more exhausted. The way to the tent, usually an easy walk, turned into a very long and hard effort. Sometimes it seemed that it was beyond my strength and I would never be able to get there. But at last I entered the tent and saw Olga. There was much tea and a little food for me. Then I lay down and fell dead asleep.

The whole next day we slowly brought our heavily-laden rucksacks down the glacier, sometimes falling into crevasses, sometimes rolling in snow up to our chests. It snowed the entire time. The dense and heavy snowflakes seemed to drive us on as unbidden guests. Now everything—Kangtega, our ABC, the ascent, and our troubles—seemed very, very far away, both in terms of distance and time. The past few weeks seemed to us like whole years swapped for something else, something very important. Maybe it was the part of our life that lay somewhere below, life with its urgent affairs, people, flowers. And somewhere in the bottom of my soul there was a gnawing feeling of loss, of incompleteness, as if I had left behind something vital. Whatever it was is still up there, somewhere high on the glacier, or maybe higher still….

Summary of Statistics

Area: Nepal Himalaya

New Route: The North Face (ED+, or, 5C/6A A2/A3 M6 80°, 1200m) of Kangtega (6799m) to 6600 meters on the northwest ridge, May 20-28, Valeri Babanov

Personnel: Valeri Babanov, Olga Babanov, Sanga (cook)

Valeri Babanov, 35, an International Master of Sport, is from Omsk, Russia, but currently spends most of his time in Chamonix, France. He is a professional climber and has climbed in the Himalaya, Yosemite, the Alps, Alaska, the Pamir, Tien Shan, Altai, and the Caucasus. Among his recent solo accomplishments were the MacIntyre Route and the first ascent of the route Eldorado (ED+, 1200m), both on the north face of the Grandes Jorasses; the Petit Dru’s West Face; and the route Forever More on Alaska’s Mt. Barrille. For Babanov, mountaineering is a way of life and solo climbing is the logical continuation of his life in mountains.

*The account in the 1980 AAJ, pp. 613-614, is ambiguous, but a full account in the Iwa to Yuki (number 70) that includes a diagram of the climb shows the line of ascent, which took a couloir to a col between Kangtega II and III, from which the summit was reached by the northwest ridge on April 21. Our thanks to Elizabeth Hawley for her help in this matter.

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