Nilgiri Northeast, South Ridge, Ascent. On, April 5, the Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne left for Nepal, returning to the Himalaya after more than five years of polar expeditions. The objective was to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of Maurice Herzog and Louis Lachenall’s first ascent of Annapurna.
We linked up by bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara then to Beni, arriving April 11. We managed to get to the 4300-meter Annapurna North Face Base Camp after seven days of trekking and a strike by the Sherpas. Base Camp was established at the foot of a semicircular wall a bit above 3000 meters. It is set on the side of a moraine, and the sound of constantly falling seracs immediately put us in a wary frame of mind. We met up with the best part of our gear, which had been transported up there by helicopter. The first days of acclimatization were devoted to sorting and preparing equipment and the puja. Camp I was quickly set up at the reasonable altitude of 5000 meters at the foot of the north face. Then pessimism set in, as unbelievable serac falls regularly swept over the route from Camp II to Camp III.
On the eve of our second portage, Camp II was buried under a falling serac—even bigger than the others—along with the only route into it. As with an American team and two groups of Spaniards later on, we were forced to renounce the plan before we really got going—a frustrating decision!
One of the goals of this expedition was to teach Himalayan techniques to the neophyte members of our group, so it was out of the question that we would leave the region entirely after this setback. During the next few days, we did a great deal of reconnaissance on other approaches to Annapurna as well as neighboring peaks. Nilgiri Northeast (6750m) was finally chosen because it offered the only routes free of exposure to seracs.
On April 26, a team of climbers headed toward the couloir leading to the south pillar. They set up Camp I at 5000 meters alongside a large rock at its base. On the 28th, Camp II was in place at the high end of the couloir, at 5650 meters. We had to carve out a platform in the icy surface of the col. Four days later, after fixing more than a kilometer of ropes, we sat in the single tent at Camp III on a fine flat shoulder at 6450 meters. At this point the majority of our difficulties were behind us.
We rested for a few hours and left camp during the night of May 3. Seventy meters of rope were devoted to circumnavigating a serac; a bit farther on, the arête butted up against an unconquerable serac. After numerous tries, we noticed after sunup that a long snowbridge traversed the southeast face and would allow us to reach the opposing arête. A bit of trial and error, and we reached the summit at 7:30 a.m. The heavens opened up for us and provided a magnificent view: Annapurna, Manaslu, Mustang.
On May 4, the second team summited at 4:30 p.m. under a gray overcast, and strong winds prohibited any thoughts of parapenting. They descended to Camp III. The next day at dawn, however, conditions were ideal; Lauren Miston took off. Clouds rolled in immediately, though, and he was enveloped, obliging him to make a few 360s in the cottony sea of clouds. Thanks to his mastery of the art, once he came out of the clouds he was able to land alongside the tents at Base Camp. A movie camera attached to his helmet recorded his flight and the remarkable vista of his canopy and the clouds.
We made the return to Kathmandu by helicopter, which made it possible to avoid the misadventures of trekking and allowed us to admire the highest reaches of the Annapurna massif.
Despite the initial frustration, the GMHM succeeded in its return to high altitude, and gathered much information useful for future expeditions.
Antoine de Choudens, Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne, France