Asia, Nepal, Kangchenjunga Region, Kumbhakarna Himal, Jannu (Kumbhakarna), East Face Attempt and History

Publication Year: 2005.

Jannu (Kumbhakarna), east face attempt and history. Jannu, also known as Kumbhakarna, not far from Kangchenjunga, has a forbiddingly precipitous east face, which Slovenians seem to have become obsessively determined to scale. Its main summit is 7,710m, while its east face tops out on the east summit at 7,468m. Nearly every team that has aimed to climb it has been Slovenian. None has yet succeeded.

Tomaz Humar, 35 years old, had demonstrated his exceptional abilities in earlier climbs in Nepal on Ama Dablam and Nuptse in Khumbu, Bobaye in the far west of Nepal, and—most notably—solo on the south face of Dhaulagiri I in 1999. This season his goal was to make the first ascent of Jannu’s east face all the way—and to do it solo. But he had to abandon the effort at 7,000m where, in its present condition, the face had gotten “harder and harder, riskier and riskier as I went higher and higher.”

Before tackling the face, Humar acclimatized to 6,000m on an east pillar with his Croatian friend, Stipe Bozic. Then to the face. But the face was “totally different” from what he had seen in pictures of the 1992 attempt: now there was black ice and above that many big mushrooms covered with powder snow, which made them very dangerous.

His ascent from advance base camp at 5,400m lasted for four days. On the first day, October 27, he crossed a high glacier shaped like an amphitheater where powder snow avalanches were falling constantly and depositing chest-deep snow, and where there were very deep crevasses, many at least six meters wide. But one was a mere two meters wide, and this he jumped across. Then to get out of this area of avalanche debris, he started up an ice and rock debris pillar at the southern end of the face, up 30 meters on an overhanging section with a series of dangerous and difficult obstacles where he was hit hard by an ice “candle” that luckily did him no damage. He bivouacked at 6,000m late that afternoon.

His second bivouac the next day was only 200 meters higher. Here he had to climb a system of overhanging rock cracks 20 meters high. He climbed up inside them and then over onto the outside. They were like polished granite and gave very little friction, and it was impossible to affix a rope. This was a “very risky” area, he said. Next came a number of mushroom ridges, a “nightmare” of ups and downs past mushrooms and avalanches. At 6,200m he found a narrow rock ledge and bivouacked there, half hanging over the edge.

On the 29th, Humar was finally able to climb very fast and in six hours had scaled a face of 80°-90° and then had to work his way up a very thin couloir covered with black ice under powder snow, which he laboriously cleared away. Each side was a huge balloon of powder snow and at the top of it were cauliflower cornices.

Here he fell three times but carried on, then traversed 20 meters to the right side on a mushroom to end up bivouacking at 6,850m in a snow hole that he dug deep into a mushroom on a ledge. He left his gear here and tried to find a route beyond, but he could gain just 25 meters in four hours. He returned to his snow hold and spent a very cold night there; 100 km/hour winds were blowing “very fresh air” into it and down his throat. But he was confident that next day he would be able to reach the shoulder on the southeast ridge, which leads to the top.

But “a nightmare came early in the morning [of the 30th] when I tried to reach this shoulder” only 20 meters above but “unreachable” through the mushrooms. He could find no way past them in five attempts up different couloirs and mushrooms. After four and a half hours of these futile efforts, he gave up at about 7,000m.

So at 1:00 that afternoon, he packed up his gear and headed down, found a way through fog, and after 4:00 p.m., through falling snow. He fell five times on rock pillars, and at one place below had to jump two crevasses. He could not follow his own tracks because avalanches had filled them in, but he managed to arrive safely at advance base camp after nightfall in six hours’ descent. He spent the night there and was down at his base on the 31st.

He said that he has no plans to go back to Jannu’s east face again. He would not declare the route to be impossible, but it is simply too dangerous in its present condition.

Like Humar, all of the earlier teams on the east face had no Sherpas or bottled oxygen with them, but not all actually did any climbing, two for tragic reasons. The Slovenians’ first bid was made in the spring of 1991, when the two members attained an altitude of 7,050m, then gave up because of a combination of bad weather, frost-nipped toes, exhaustion, and no more gas for cooking. In the following spring, a three-member team moved over toward the left and reached 7,100m, at a point where the face meets the southeast ridge; they then turned back safely. But that autumn one member of a six-man party on their approach to base camp went for a swim in a river, slipped, and drowned; his teammates never went to the mountain.

In the autumn of 1993, two of a three-member group got to 6,800m, then abandoned the climb because of dangerous avalanching. In 1996 both members of a two-man team disappeared without trace during their acclimatization climb on nearby Kabru; fog closed in around them and they were never seen again. In the spring of 1998 eight members waited for weeks at the bottom of the east face for constant avalanching to cease, but finally abandoned hope and actually did no climbing. Four years later, four other Slovenes spent two weeks at advance base camp just beneath the face, where fog obscured the face and soon snow began falling; avalanching sent them home, too.

Elizabeth Hawley, AAC Honorary Member, Nepal