The Crystal Snake
Overlooking the Everest circus and yet a world away, a rivulet of water ice plunges down the huge north face of Nuptse, Nepal.
One phone call changed our lives. It came from a guiding company in January 2003, with an offer to guide Everest in the upcoming spring. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the first ascent, and for me this was an offer that evoked mixed feelings. I knew that this year could be the biggest nightmare in the mountain’s history. There were going to be too many expeditions, too much press, and too many ego-trippers. And, having personally guided this Big Mama, I knew that when it comes to “Sagarmatha,” people have far too much ego.
From my experience, a mix of poorly run private expeditions meeting in base camp is a formula for disaster. In the spring of 2002, after summiting and arriving back at the South Col, I had to go back up the mountain to rescue a Hungarian in trouble. It seems his “friends” had decided that in some mystical way he would manage to return safely to camp, even though he had collapsed at 8,200 meters. The rescue excursion could have cost me my fingers, and the bottom line in 2003 was that I refused the offer.
When that phone call came in January, I decided that it was time for Damian, my twin brother, and I to embark on our own quest in the search for the ultimate art of suffering. We would pursue one of my deepest dreams: “Fatai Sarpa Nuptse,” the Crystal Snake of Nuptse. My introduction to the Snake came in the spring of 1999 during my first trip to Everest. I will never forget that day when I arrived at Camp I, at the top of the infamous Khumbu Icefall. A layer of clouds covered the entire Western Cwm, but suddenly the sky partially cleared, showing the Crystal Snake through the mist. I was looking at the most impressive and beautiful line that my eyes had ever seen. A couloir of perfect ice, faultless and clear as crystal, ran from bottom to top.
During my next two journeys to Sargamatha, I studied Nuptse, becoming almost obsessed. We climbers arc really good at imagining lines up a mountain, our little brains connecting couloirs, ramps, and chimneys. Imagining myself on that route seemed easy because everything looked like it made perfect sense.
The Crystal Snake is on the flank of the imposing north buttress of Nuptse, whose main summit rises to 7,855 meters. The name Nuptse is Tibetan for “west peak.” When you enter the Western Cwm you are looking directly up at Nuptse. While the prime objective of most climbers on this planet is Sagarmatha, consider this: Everest has had more than 1,000 summiters, while its neighboring peak, Nuptse, has seen only six ascents since it was first climbed in 1961.
The following is the account of our expedition.
March 21. We managed to escape Kathmandu at long last, flying to the village of Lukla, and decided to take our time reaching base; not having many responsibilities there seemed no point in arriving early. The trek went perfectly. At every tea house we met hordes of climbers on their way to Everest, and endured the endless question: “So, you’re climbing Everest?” To which we tirelessly responded, “No, we’re trying a new route on the north face of Nuptse.” It seemed that our answer wasn’t interesting, because few people wanted to know more.
April 4. The moment we had arrived at base camp, an Irish-American expedition invited us to their puja. It was a good excuse to drink a lot of rakshi, and, of course, to meet some of my dearest friends, Phenden, Nima Sheri, Nima Undy, and Pemba Gelgen. Each of us had managed to set our feet on the top of the world two or three times. After settling into camp our friend Lama Jambu offered to do a personal puja for us in order to ask permission of the mountain to allow us to enter and have a safe journey. It was a big honor. We have known Lama for almost five years and shared many expeditions and adventures together. A retired monk with seven climbs of Everest, he’s a world-class climbing Sherpa. We had an amazing puja with our friends, just a small group of people who got together to enjoy a good time in the pursuit of a Himalayan mountain. While the party and laughter were growing, Sherpas from other expeditions came to wish us good luck on our adventure. The other Westerners had come to reach the top of the world, but we were different. We were the weirdoes of Everest Base Camp.
For nearly two weeks we had been working on our acclimatization, going up to Camp II on Everest and helping to fix ropes toward the South Col. There were soon to be crowds of climbers heading up, including those who simply dreamed of being climbers. For me, this trip was a culture shock. For the last three years, I had come to this base camp as a guide in charge of big expeditions. This involved lots of decision-making for other people. Now, it was so different: my brother, myself, and Edurne Pasaban with her Lhotse team were the only members of the team. The contrast of the two styles was astonishing. Big expeditions aren’t bad—after all, I’m a guide and such expeditions bring bread to my table—but yes, they are certainly different.
There were about 500 Westerners in base camp, with a total of over 1,000 people, counting the local staff. An internet café with four computers offered remarkably fast connection for $1 per minute—Sherpas from Namche had decided to take advantage of the small town of Everest BC. There was also a clinic and a small store that sold yak meat from the previous season. Oh, and don’t forget the French massage guy. Yes, this was Everest Base Camp, where everybody was more interested in the top of the world than in its majestic surroundings.
The first weeks of our acclimatization proceeded without problems other than the classic issues that arise from discussions with other teams. Expedition Sherpas had a habit of running up the mountain, all the way to Camp II, without harnesses or crampons. I found this tremendously disturbing, especially when a South African team told me that it was none of my business. It soon became my business when I rappelled into a crevasse looking for the body of a Sherpa.
But it’s time to stop complaining and to start the climbing story.
May 6. The bergschrund looked like a gigantic fence, ready to protect the Snake from intruders. I got the first pitch, and as I started climbing a huge, overhanging, steel-hard and cave-like wall, I imagined I was an insect biting at the tail of this gigantic snake. It seemed she was irritated.
I tried to think of every position I could use to help me to set ice screws. The first 45 feet went okay, but the last 15 feet went over a lip. Damian, across from me, sent words of encouragement. He kept telling me to place more gear, but of course that was too much to ask. I was hardly able to hold myself, much less spend precious time trying to set a Russian titanium screw in the ice. Slowly but surely, I managed to go over the overhang and then climb 80 feet of steep ice. I finally set the anchors, and the first lead of the climb became history. While we still had at least 40 more pitches to go, it was a good introduction. For the moment, our Snake had tolerated a pair of mosquitoes on her back with a minimum of complaint. We rappelled and headed back to camp.
But the Snake was not going to let us get away that easily. When I arrived at the tent, Damian was about 40 feet behind me. I dropped my tools and backpack, turned around, and looked back. Surprise! All I could see of Damian was his head. The rest had vanished into the glacier. “I don’t understand,” he said.“I followed your steps!” Perhaps he had eaten more cookies than I.
After carefully studying our route, we realized that the climb would be divided into many sections. The first step, the Snake’s tail, was about 2,000 feet of hard ice and mixed climbing. There appeared to be no possibilities for bivvies, and it seemed to be the crux of the route. The main body of the Snake was about 2,000 additional feet. One rock step in particular looked directly at us and seemed to be whispering, “If you prick me with your sharp tools I will shake you off!” Finally, there was the neck and the head. It was clear that we would have to be fully determined to once again embrace the art of suffering.
May 15. We were acclimatized and ready to go. I will never forget looking up and seeing only an endless snake of ice. The morning sun gave her a terrifying shine, an aura of impossible ice surrounded by reckless rock towers. Everything looked way too steep. The ice was so brittle that it reminded me of all the wine glasses I had broken at home. We quickly reached a little cave visible from below. Looking at it from the glacier we fantasized that it could hold a set of twins. In fact it was barely big enough to fit one of us. At least now we had a good belay station that did a fine job of protecting Damian from all the dinnerplate-sized shards of ice that I sent straight down at him each time I struck the ice with my tools.
We climbed nine more pitches, each hard. There was nothing less than M3 W14 with a couple of 5.9 M4 WI5 pitches thrown in. Let’s just say that I was in need of adult diapers. At 6,100 meters my lungs were bursting in the constant search for any and all tiny molecules of oxygen. Time passed and the sun began to leave us. Every belay became an endless search for bivy spots. We were beginning to think that we had more chance of winning a lottery than finding decent bivvies.
The day at last came to a close. We were now at the bottom of the snake’s main body and it was getting dark and chilly. Not able to find a decent bivy spot, we hung in our harnesses—our bed for the night. It ended up being a sleepless night where every 20 minutes or so we needed to move in order to keep the circulation moving in our legs. Time passed slowly.
We both complained a lot. Melting snow became the most serious business at hand. Since we couldn’t sleep, hydration was the next priority. At 2 a.m. we decided to start melting snow again, but I screamed when I looked at the stove. Surprise! I saw a burner but no gas canister. I screamed again, and then Damian started screaming with me. Our simultaneous screams were probably loud enough to create an avalanche in the Khumbu. Our main tool—the only thing that would keep us alive in this environment—had, for some mysterious reason, broken without any explanation. (Note to self: next time stick with an MSR.)
I found the canister 10 feet below us, stuck in a crack. When finally I was able to retrieve it, the valve broke in half, probably from the cold. I couldn’t believe it. After so many years of dreaming and preparing for this climb, were we going to fail because of this damned stove? Damian, who is really good at fixing things, thought it might be possible to repair it. With not much of my brain functioning, I said we should drop 90 percent of the gear and give the route a single-push try. Damian spent an hour working with his knife and duct tape. He tried hard to fix the thing, but to no avail. We suffered out the rest of the night.
May 16. In the morning, as the sun reached our stiff joints, we came to a decision. We would leave all our gear and head down. This was a good way to blackmail ourselves, because we would have to return, if for nothing else than to retrieve it. The thought of re-leading all the previous pitches brought chills to the back of my neck, but 10 rappels later we arrived at the base. Looking up, I swore that we would not allow ourselves to let this failure discourage us. We would be back!
We decided to drop into our friends’s camp, where we reloaded our tummies with dhal bhat (food of champions). We realized that we were going to be short of ice screws, and set about begging some from other teams. But the only screws we could find were cheap Russian ones. The last time I tried to use one of these it ended up as a twisted piece of metal ready to be dumped into a recycling container. The ice we were going to encounter on this route was way too hard for these screws. Finally, an obliging Indian team agreed to send up two screws from base camp. It was a good excuse to rest while we waited in camp for one more day.
May 17. We spent our rest day organizing gear and discussing final preparations for the journey up the Snake. In the name of super-light alpine style, we agreed to take only enough food for four days. We also decided to take a rack of six pins, a handful of stoppers, a half-dozen cams, six ice screws, and two 60-meter ropes.
May 18. We departed early in the morning. Damian had cracked a rib as a result of the classic “Khumbu Cough,” and he was in a tremendous amount of pain. As a result, we agreed that I would lead the hard sections. I was personally okay with this because it meant I would be safe from the big rockets one normally sends down while leading. Damian deserves way more credit than I do, considering he was climbing this hard, at this altitude, on top of feeling bad already; he definitely deserved the medal for the Art of Suffering.
It was a nerve-wracking time, leading with marginal gear. The weather was unstable and delivered a constant spindrift that attacked me from all directions. We arrived back at our precious gear stash and had no other choice than to bivy again at the same spot. At least this time we had a little more time to get situated, and we managed a better bivy. Though still hanging in our harnesses, we were at least protected from the spindrift.
May 19. Entering the main body of the Snake put us in a most extraordinary couloir, surrounded by orange granite with a perfect streak of smooth green and blue ice stretching above and below. The climb had become mostly hard ice, and the plates I was sending down onto Damian grew in size. Safe belays for my brother proved almost impossible to find. The ice would bounce all over and finally strike him without mercy.
As we approached the first rock band, the spindrifts became an annoyance; I found myself wishing I had scuba gear. After four pitches we saw that the weather had become so bad that we decided to look for a safe bivy spot. Once again we were dreamers—there was no such thing as a good bivy. After some digging we managed to make a small ledge that was agreeable to both of us since we were able to escape from the harness torture. Unfortunately, we were forced to spoon each other and to spend the night getting hit by spindrift and being pushed off the ledge. By morning our sleeping bags were totally wet.
May 20. We realized that if this weather was not going to change, we were going to be in a world of pain and trouble. Continuing the climb with frozen, wet gear was a bad, bad idea. We hoped that the next bivy would be better. As it turned out, it was a great day of climbing, but we were still plagued by our ever-present companion: spindrift. We entered the first rock band, a hard, mixed section. Luckily for us, another perfect couloir ran through the middle, followed by the most amazing ice-skating field. It was a 55-degree face, smooth and shiny as a mirror.
Halfway through the rock band, it was time to bivy again. Now we were really high on this gigantic face, with little gear left to get back down. Our sleeping bags were once again totally frozen, and melting snow on the stove proved extremely difficult. We had no choice but to close our bivy bags as much as possible and put positive energy into our thoughts. I fell asleep thinking, “Please do not let the next avalanche be big enough to pull us off this face.”
May 21. You know you’ve had a cold night when both you and the sleeping bag are covered with a layer of ice.
We now followed the neck of the Snake. Steep ice, followed by mixed climbing, finally brought us to the head. We were entering the final part of the journey. But what a big surprise the Snake had for us! She turned out to be a cobra, with poison in her fangs. The terrain had turned easy enough for us to climb simultaneously, but soon I realized that the 55-degree slope was poised to avalanche. It was impossible to turn back, so we had no choice but to continue. With every step I sank to my thighs, wondering when she would strike. Looking back at Damian, I realized that at any moment he could be swept away. I screamed down to him, “This thing is going to slide at any moment. I’ll let the rope loose and try to get over to the right!” He replied, “No way will I let you do that!” Since the ropes where frozen and I had big gloves on, I decided to use my knife to cut the ropes close to my harness.
I waited for Damian at a single rock in the middle of this huge bowl of snow, where we rested for a few minutes feeling like castaway sailors not wanting to let go of a tiny island. With no idea how the snow was still holding in place, we stepped onto the face and continued climbing for about 300 meters more until we were finally in the clear.
Fortunately, the weather was the best of the climb. After a few hours we arrived at the base of the first rock band on the ridge. Here, at last, we found a great bivy site!
May 22. The morning weather was dreadful. With tremendous winds and heavy spindrift, visibility was almost zero. We were having a hard time reading the route—and there was no room for mistakes, as we were exhausted from too many days of hard climbing at high altitude with little sleep. Our theory that 400 calories a day would be sufficient turned out to be far from realistic.
I began a one-pitch traverse to the right, but the rock became crappy; combine that with fresh snow, and I had a hard time finding even psychological protection. Somehow I managed to create a psychological belay, and soon enough Damien came traversing. He is a good climber and I knew he was in a lot of pain. I looked at him with admiration as he passed the crux without a single problem.
And so we continued, with more puzzling climbing, always guessing where to go next. At least it was easy terrain at this point, with only an occasional hard section. The weather was turning horrendous, and we desperately looked for a bivy site. The only safe place we could find was at the base of a rock step. Damian started digging a platform while I began climbing another pitch, looking for a better spot. My pitch started with a mixed section, nothing really hard. Gigantic spindrifts threatened, and once, if I hadn’t decided to move to the side, I would have been back next to Damian in an unconventional way. Finding the climbing too dangerous to continue, I decided to return to my brother while I could still do it under control. Once there, I managed to find the best spot to sleep. Damian had the worst place, and I knew he would spend all night moving back and forth. At least I was cozy.
May 23. We woke up early and started climbing into a very bad day. We knew that there was only one way off Nuptse, and that was to traverse to the other side of the main north buttress. High winds and the constant spindrift attacked us from all directions. After a couple of hours we found ourselves at the top of the buttress. At around 7,575 meters we saw the summit was so close that it gave us new energy and enough excitement to say, “Let’s do it!”
And so, after six days of constant battle with spindrift, wind, and hard climbing, the Snake granted us permission to reach the summit. The wind ceased and the clouds cleared, and soon it was so warm that we even removed our down jackets. I reached the summit at one o’clock and Damian arrived 20 minutes later. The view was one of the most amazing that we had ever seen: Everest, Lhotse, Pumori—yes, life was good.
As with any summit, the top is only the halfway point, and we still needed to get down. We started rappelling the 1979 British route, and after endless downclimbing we arrived at Everest’s Camp II at 10 p.m. There, the crew from Alpine Ascents was waiting for us with warm food and a beautiful dry sleeping bag for me. Damian shared his girlfriend’s bag, and we both had a fine night.
We’ve been told that climbing the Snake must have been one of the most difficult things we had ever done. In fact it wasn’t the climb itself that was the most difficult, but what happened to us after the summit, when we spent 12 hours trying to save the life of Sherpa Karma. We called desperately over the radio for assistance, but it seemed everyone was too busy with his or her own tribulations. The only team who came to help us was the Alpine Ascents expedition and Manuel Luigi, an Italian climber. After 10 hours of continuous effort, Sherpa Karma sadly passed away at the beginning of the icefall, at 5,790 meters. As the Sherpas say, “The Gods of the mountains followed him in his journey to the after life.”
Just a couple of days after this misfortune, a M17 helicopter with eight climbers aboard crashed into Everest Base Camp. Again, we found ourselves desperately trying to save lives. Yes, my friends, what was hard for us was not the climb. It was the continuous effort to save the lives of human beings, and not being able to achieve it.
Summary of Statistics:
Area: Khumbu Himal
Ascent: North face of Nuptse (7,861m), The Crystal Snake (1,500m, 42 pitches and much soloing, 5.9 M4 WI5). Six days in May, 2003. Willie and Damian Benegas.
A Note About the Author:
Born and raised in the wild heart of Patagonia, Willie Benegas (34) has pursued a long apprenticeship in the mountains. Willie has pushed his craft on the big walls of Yosemite, the airy summits of South America, and the loftiest peaks of the Himalaya. Willie completed his first major ascent in the winter of 1989 with a route up Patagonia's west face of Pitriquitron (VI 5.9 A3 WI2/3), which is still unrepeated. In the following years, Willie made the first ascent of the north face of the Nameless Tower, record speed ascents in Yosemite Valley, and attempted major new routes on the north faces of Thalay Sagar and Jannu. In 2001, he set the world record speed ascent/descent of Aconcagua (22,831’), summited Everest for a second time, and ran the legendary Leadville Ultra 100-mile Race. In the spring of 2004, Willie reached the Top of the World a fourth time.