Surrealistic purity on the new French route up the north face of Thalay Sagar.
I emerge from the portaledge a zombie. A quick glance at my watch, not for the time, but for the barometric pressure: it’s a bit better! It’s 4 p.m. and it has already been more than three days since we were stopped by the bad weather at 6,000 meters in the heart of the north face of Thalay Sagar. This morning Patrick and Jérôme descended. It was too much for them. Too much snow, too much rime and humidity, too much waiting, uncertainty, and what’s more, Patrick wasn’t feeling well. During such times it is easy to become discouraged. While weighing the pros and the cons one wonders what one is doing in such a place, and whether it’s really worth all the trouble. We all know this feeling.
Steph and I feel empty inside. Now we are just two after all these preparations together, these difficult carries, and these five days of sharing the route already.
I remember everything that brought us here, to India, to this face. First the photo in the book Himalaya Alpine Style, and then more photos by the Australian climbers; they planted a dream that we might leave our own imprint on this sumptuous face. And then there was all the preparation. But above all, I remember the shock of arriving and discovering the wall. The dreams and the reality merged suddenly in front of our eyes, and there had been no deception. This face! With a line of goulottes [bottleneck couloirs] in its center a line emerges that is improbable, unimaginable, surealistic, of rare purity. Such a line! It would be too terrible not to climb it; we must try to understand such purity. Ephemerality adds a dimension that only ice can bring to a route.
We passed days and days with our eyes riveted on the face scrutinizing its translucent sheets for the places where the passage of an alpinist could turn from dream to reality. And then we attacked this line, despite certain doubts among us.
Now it is just Steph and me in the portaledge, being hammered by spindrift. But it is nice enough outside, and the clouds that imprisoned the summits have dissipated hour by hour. We will climb back up the 60 meters of rope fixed by Jérôme in bad weather at the foot of the big sheets of ice. But oulala, it’s hard to move. We are stiff from these three days of waiting without moving in the portaledge. I exit first and follow the rope on the traverse. Little by little the route’s first big question mark unveils itself: an immense sheet of steep ice. We had said it could be breached somewhere—but where?
Well, it seems it is passable everywhere. The ice feels good, and the flame that had been inside me rekindles. Steph joins me and seems also to be reassured and enthusiastic by seeing the ice thick and good. We return to our shelter happy from our little outing.
This morning, the sixth day on the route, is a new start. We prepare hastily because it was already late when we noticed that it was nice outside; we had been fooled again by strong flows of snow hitting our shelter, which left us thinking it was another day of bad weather.
Everything is frozen, the tubes of the portaledge are jammed, the cold is arctic, a strong wind beats against the face, and my feet are numb. We battle, all of our efforts united, to bring them back to life. What a fright!
Finally we can climb. It’s 10 a.m. and the first ice sheets mark the start of the mountain’s real difficulties, which won’t let up until the summit. On the third pitch of the day, Steph makes it to the famous big ice sheet—this ecstasy of beauty: 85-90° for 70 meters with an exceptional quality of ice, a blend between styrofoam and sorbet thick enough to stick tools into comfortably. We hoist our gear and are forced to install ourselves on our ledge in the middle of a 90° goulotte.
Another night under the spindrift after a day where it was impossible to rewarm ourselves. It will always be like this. Inside it’s tight and the stove fumes make us nauseous. We sleep drunk with fatigue, the altitude marking us little by little.
We wake late. It will always be like this, also. The cold is glacial: -12°C inside the portaledge. This morning everything inside is covered in frost and every movement releases an ice shower. Numb and slow, we break camp and start again on a full menu where the sustained pitches link with frequent sections of 90°. It is a fabulous climb and we savor every moment. It’s a game of tightrope walking on steep and fragile plates of ice that gives the name to the route, “One-Way Ticket.”
Hauling the evil sack burns the last two or three calories in my body. I am tired of the work of hauling, and I don’t want to cart this stuff any higher. We must try a new approach: fix a bit higher and then a light assault on the summit. I believe in our chances for success this way. Steph isn’t programmed for this scenario and has doubts. But I insist I that I want nothing more to do with taking down and setting up this wretched portaledge that’s stealing all of my energy. We finally agree to try it my way.
We install our camp at 6,500m tonight. Eat, drink. The soup with bacon doesn’t work. We are cooked, and Steph vomits. I move to my side and don’t rest well this night. We are exhausted.
Good news! We wake up feeling much better. Today we won’t move the camp. The nearness of the summit is tempting, and so we’ll fix all our rope and return to sleep here. Steph leads a hallucinogenic pitch that ends with 10 meters of an ice drip. When I join him at the belay with empty arms, we have both been worked by the pitch. Looking up we can see that it is not finished. We can’t believe how beautiful it is. We link up two more pitches in a giant toboggan run. Amazing.
We have fixed three ropelengths, about 150m, that allow us to slide right into camp. This evening we must drink more than usual to recuperate well and to be in form for tomorrow because a hard day awaits us. Installed now comfortably in our ledge, we realize that we are making a crazy route! And we must savor it because we surely won’t ever again climb a route like this again.
The wakeup alarm; it is 3 a.m. All is frosted inside the ledge; the cold numbs our slow movements. I sense that something isn’t right, that I’m not well today. I suffer badly on the fixed ropes. Now that dawn has come, I climb in the lead and it’s a clumsy torture. I make a long traversing pitch that takes us to the foot of the schist part of the face, where we meet the Australian route. Steph joins me then engages above in inobvious dry tooling and avoids falling with several close recoveries.
After that a length on evasive ice plates covered in snow. And then Steph takes a super hard pitch, a wormlike offwidth stuffed with snow and distant protection. Following this, my torture is like being transformed into a sausage; I am full of admiration when I join him at the belay. Here we are, at the foot of the big chimney that marks the end of the difficulties, we are at about 6,750m. We have done the line, but we are exhausted.
The summit holds out its hand across its cap of snow. A final effort to break through the cornice, and we are like magic on top!
It is always a big moment to find oneself on a mountain’s summit, but this time even more so, because the climb was beautiful and hard and therefore we savor all the more the reward.
Hagard, we mechanically take some photos despite the icy wind. It is 17h15; we must think about the descent now. A final 360-degree look across the Garwhal that is bathed in clouds, and we depart for an acrobatic descent through the overhangs. We rejoin our camp at about 20h00 after a series of impressive rappels.
Filled with joy and drunk with fatigue, we don’t even turn on the stove before plunging into dreams. The next day the descent is long and taxing, and we bring our heavy sacks back to advanced base camp in the night. I fall asleep almost with my eyes open and plunge directly into dreams. We wake feeling exploded, and we have trouble doing anything concrete. Our heads are still up high, while our tired bodies don’t respond to our commands. Our feet and hands have been killed by the cold’s assaults during the 10 days on the face.
Our friends join us in the morning to help us break the camp. That’s it. We turn our backs to this wall that will haunt our dreams for a long time to come, and we steer toward other horizons in the world of civilization.
Summary of Statistics
Area: India, Garhwal Himalaya
Ascent: North face of Thalay Sagar, One-Way Ticket (1,200m, ED+, VII 5.8 WI6 M6).
Stéphanie Benoist and Patrice Glairon-Rappaz. Ten days in September, 2003. The first five
days (to 6,000m) included Patrick Pessi and Jérôme Thinières.
Translated by John Harlin III