The Direct Rupal Face
Going broomless on Nanga Parbat’s 4,000~meter Rupal Face, Pakistan.
Steve House and I were two hours out of base camp and already over 600 meters up the new route of a lifetime. What that means on the Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat (8,125 meters) is that we were still below “cowline” and had 3,900 meters to go. In all of climbing, it doesn’t get any bigger than the Rupal Face. I broke it down, convincing myself that the first third would be cruiser, a warm-up really, for the upper two-thirds of the face—which, by itself, was 600 meters higher than the biggest wall I’d ever climbed. But as we stepped off the braided network of cow singletrack onto the glacier, I realized that the next 300 meters of warm-up, a snow gully, was in a pile in front of us. On our recon we’d considered the possibility of it sliding. But we’d dismissed it as unlikely and hadn’t been too concerned. Our obvious miscalculation—it had run so massively that a couple of hundred meters of it was completely devoid of snow, making it impassible —now seemed almost comic.
I made my first reality adjustment about the wall, which for 20 years now had been an iconic presence for me. In the mid 1980s I had read Reinhold Messner’s provocative first book, The Seventh Grade. The last chapter recounted his 1970 first ascent of the Rupal Face with his brother Günther. My edition included a photo taken in the Merkl Gully of a goggled, snow-plastered Günther. What interested me was the small whiskbroom dangling inconspicuously from his harness. No one had ever told me about whiskbrooms. Armed with that secret Rupal knowledge, I attempted to sweep my way up more than one snow-covered route above my home in Boulder, Colorado. Steve, meanwhile, was gaining more relevant experience. He was actually attempting to climb Nanga Parbat (with ice tools) via the Schell Route as part of the 1990 Slovene expedition. He didn’t summit, but the mountain, particularly the Rupal Face, made a lasting impression.
In 2004, while brooms continued to figure more prominently in my life than ice tools, Steve was training and plotting a new line up the center of the Rupal Face. Until a few months before our expedition, Steve had fully intended to solo his direct route. That changed when I learned of Steve’s plan and invited myself along.
The shortest road from Skardu to Tarshing, at the base of the Rupal Valley, crosses the Deosai Plains, a grassy plateau reminding me of the Scottish Highlands. What makes the landscape unlike any other is the solitary presence of Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world. As we dropped into the valleys closer to the peak, the high plains gave way to rolling hills. At one point we stopped where a couple of vans full of Pakistani men had pulled over. They were taking photos, laughing, and picking flowers on the lush surrounding slopes. That’s just the kind of beautiful country it is. It’s a place where grown men frolic.
We arrived in Tarshing on August 9, sorted loads, gathered porters, and trekked up to Steve’s old Slovene base camp at 3,580m the following day. After the first leg of our trip in the relatively treeless Charakusa Valley, the pine forests of the Rupal Valley felt like coming home. The next day Steve and I walked up to cowline and studied the face for a couple of hours. The upper half was obscured in clouds, but Steve saw enough to convince him I might be of use up there. I had only to see something to dissuade me from going, but I didn’t. So, with a lot less discussion than we’d given to the relative merits of Kill Bill I and II, we committed ourselves to the climb.
On August 12, after a day of sorting gear, we walked out of base camp in tee shirts and tennies. Back at the avalanche debris we opted to climb the rock to the right of the former snow gully. Soloing a couple of hundred meters of 5.4 rock was a great way to start an 8,000m peak. At mid-day we were back in the gully, above where the slide had entered, kicking up 45° snow. There were no more surprises that day, just easy snow and ice that we followed back across the rock to the base of the first significant obstacle at 5,100m.
Early the next morning, after 60 meters of 60° to 70° ice, we were at the base of two runnels. Steve chose the thin right runnel, which appeared more difficult than the rotten left runnel, but offered the possibility of rock pro. He was half-right. The pitch was the hardest of the route (M5), but he was able to place only a few decent pins. I removed the rest by hand. He led one more pitch that spit us out onto open 50° ice.
The sun had wrapped around by now, warming up the wall and bringing it down on us. Seracs that hung over the enormous right side of the Rupal Face were calving off regularly. We were far enough left, in the center of the face, to be fairly certain we were catching only the windblast of one such release. Still, I swung furiously to anchor myself before the cloud enveloped us. Objects falling from directly overhead were the real concern. Rock frisbees whistled past regularly, and wet snow slurries flowed down like intermittent waterfalls.
By mid-day further progress was out of the question. We set up the bivouac tent at 5,400m on a fin that offered some protection from all but a massive avalanche. Unfortunately, that was a real possibility. A complex serac wall, having the appearance of a benign ripple in the photos we’d used for planning, hung unpredictably 450 meters above us. Two hours earlier, while tracing the route, I had watched a torrent of wet snow spill over the imagined exit notch.
My nerves were shot and my anxiety had turned to resignation. “Steve,” I said, “this is way outside my window of acceptable risk.” I wanted to go down. Though respecting my opinion, he was completely unfazed by the situation. As we talked about options, one of which included him continuing solo, the sun left the face and it quieted down. I agreed that if we could reach the serac wall (where we had originally hoped to bivouac that night) before sunrise, negotiate it, and climb the entire slope above, we wouldn’t leave ourselves too exposed. It was a messy decision on my part, but it’s been my experience that alpinism is always messy. If I came down with only my bibs soiled I would consider myself lucky.
Our plan for August 14 was so unrealistic that it should have been a disaster…but it wasn’t. Our partnership and the route both came together unexpectedly. As always, on a serious route, I defer to the stronger climber when it’s practical. I spent most of the day looking up at one of the strongest. It was no place for niceties such as “Whose lead is it?” We soloed 1,250 meters of mostly 50° to 60° ice that included 15 meters of dead vertical through the serac at sunrise. Steve finished the day leading two pitches that were, thankfully, easier than they had appeared in the planning photos. We were digging out a tent site at 6,750m on the Merkl Icefield before dark. Looking out at the clear Karakoram skyline, it was hard not to be optimistic.
The next morning we didn’t get moving until first light. It had been a cold, miserable night sharing one 20° bag. We were dehydrated, our heads ached, our faces were ridiculously swollen from edema. Steve had vomited but reassured me that he often did this at high altitude (somehow this made sense at the time). Additionally, while asleep, his breathing had been disturbingly labored and irregular.
We climbed the southern edge of the Merkl Icefield to a monolithic rock wall that extended all the way over to the Merkl Gully. I led two pitches through an unlikely weakness in the wall. Steve led a third up to a stance, where with mock drama we cut our 70-meter rope in half. Any advantage the extra 35 meters might have provided us on our intended descent down the Schell Route was more than offset by its extra weight. In addition to half the rope, we ditched our two cams, some stoppers, and Steve’s helmet.
We labored up another stretch of 50° snow and ice, now carrying the bare minimum we would need to summit and descend the other side. While a significant portion of the route had involved grinding up ice at a 55° angle, the steeper mixed climbing was always intricate enough to keep things interesting. Steve led another two scrappy pitches that were no exception. It was late afternoon when we stopped, exhausted, at the base of the last significant slope (at 7,200m) before the upper Messner Route.
Leaving for the summit early on August 16 we found that snow conditions were slightly better in the pre-dawn hours, but I was still up to my waist in places as I broke trail. Steve was lagging for the first time. As we approached mid-day, the 50° snow turned to ice. Steve’s rests and my waits became more frequent. He was clearly having more than a bad day and I was seriously concerned. A chest infection, complicated by the altitude, was grinding him to a halt. There had been warning signs, but he had performed so well until now that they’d been easy to ignore.
At the end of the ice I scratched up the first sketchy 60 meters of a jumbled mixed section to put me near the upper Messner Route, above the Merkl Gully. I waited half an hour watching Steve draped over his axe. He was barely moving. Ghosts of past partners were talking to me. I climbed down to Steve and said, “You’re going too slow. You’re sick. You’re not going to get any better here at 7,500.” Steve admitted that, yes, he was hurting, but he thought he could recover —we could bivouac just below.
That was the moment I realized I hadn’t really known him. Soloing K7, earlier in the trip, Steve had performed like someone without limits, physical or otherwise. It was beyond his understanding that he was, in fact, subject to some of the same limitations as less fanatical climbers. He was making decisions based mainly on the risk of not reaching the summit. The risk of dying was a secondary concern. I listed my priorities in the reverse order. That made us a partnership perhaps essentially balanced for the Rupal Face, somewhere between bold and crazy. But we were tipping toward the latter. Finally I made the call because I thought, quite simply, he was dying. Reluctantly he accepted my last word: “down.”
I quickly descended the 300 meters that had taken us all morning to climb. Steve said he’d be right behind me. He didn’t show for an hour and a half. We exchanged some shouts, but I was still worried. The last time I was at that elevation was in 2002 on Ngozumpa Kang II, in Tibet. My partner Mike Bearzi fell to his death descending similar terrain (AAJ 2003, pg 116-123). My thoughts wandered to Mike and back to the present. Steve finally arrived and I asked what had taken him so long. “I must have fallen asleep,” he answered. I learned later he was suffering from frustration, as much as infection. We continued down, retrieved the other half of our rope, and were back the Merkl Icefield bivouac before dark. The mountain was socked in with clouds now for the first time, and spindrift spilled over the tent all night.
The next 3,200 meters of descent weren’t a complete unknown, but it was close. We had one oblique photo of the Messner Route. It was impossible to distinguish the ridges in the foreground from those in the background. First thing in the morning, we made our best guess and I started down the new terrain, setting anchors. Three raps later, spinning six meters out from the serac wall, I realized that no one had ever come up this way. We downclimbed 600 meters, and then started rapping again. I burned through our meager rack setting countless anchors to reach the Messner Route. There was consistent rockfall, and I was hit more than once, without consequence. We continued down hundreds more meters of ice, never easy, through the clouds. I was getting sloppy by sunset when we got to cowline. At that point, though, it was over. At 10 p.m. we stumbled into base camp.
A few days later Steve was out doing “aerobic recovery tests.” (It’s four months later that I write this and I still haven’t recovered!) I wished my friend luck, said goodbye to our LO, Captain Amin, and the staff, and headed home.
After another week and two courses of antibiotics, Steve walked back to the Rupal Face. Left to his own judgment, he turned around below cowline.
Before I left for Pakistan, friends had expressed more concern about anti-American extremists than they did about the dangers of the Rupal Face. We didn’t experience anything but warmth and generosity from the people of northern Pakistan (except from the satellite phone company —some things are the same the world over). The only extremist I met was the one I tried to climb the Rupal Face with. And as for the Rupal Face itself…now there’s cause for concern.
Summary of Statistics
Area: Pakistan, Nanga Parbat
Attempt: Nanga Parbat’s Direct Rupal Face (VI M5 90° ice). Reached 7,500m on the 8,125m peak—4,000 meters up the 4,500-meter face. August 12-17, 2004. Steve House and Bruce Miller.
A Note About the Author:
Bruce Miller, 41, lives with his wife Michelle and stepson Satchel in the Foothills above Boulder. Working as a carpenter has given him the freedom to make four trips to the Himalaya. He most enjoys cragging with friends in nearby Eldorado Canyon.