An alpine-style new route up Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face.
We were at 7,500 meters on the Rupal Face, and the urge to sleep was overwhelming. It would have been so easy to rest my head on my ice axe and drift off into a more comfortable place, somewhere beyond the present slaughter. Amphetamines would have helped—they worked for Buhl. The bit of caffeine in the GU seemed to help for half an hour, then I would be back to fighting to stay awake. At times we both sensed a third person in our presence, and I am not talking about Jesus. My state of mind was a kind of madness.
Steve House was strong in heart, body, and mind: driven and focused. There was no better person to be with up there. Still, he too is human, and five long, hard days in thin air had taken its toll. We were marching to hell, if ever so slowly.
My experience on the Rupal Face exists now only in abstract memory, vivid, surreal: eight days of my life that have burned a mark deep into my soul. It was my closest glimpse yet toward the essence of purity. The dearest catharsis.
Leaving base camp had been easy, though life there was comfortable. Conditions looked good and we were hungry to climb. We had waited patiently for weeks while the weather taunted and teased. With a satellite phone, we called Jim at Mountainweather.com for a forecast. His service was as valuable as the few pieces of equipment we used on our ascent. He nailed the forecast: clear, stable weather for the next six days. Weather during our ascent was a non-issue. Three weeks of light precipitation had, however, left moderate accumulations of snow on the face, and now the sun caused it to release from the slopes above. Large avalanches poured down the face every 20 minutes in the morning sun, so we waited one more day for it to clean before beginning our climb.
On the first day we climbed more than 1,600 vertical meters. Avalanches roared constantly; fortunately, they remained confined to the deep channels they had carved into the slopes throughout the summer. We felt some sense of security when outside the channels. Every time an avalanche ran, these channels became raging torrents. Crossing them between bursts was unnerving.
We climbed on rock as much as possible. The climbing was easy and pleasant, but short-lived. Eventually, a bergschrund at the base of the first real difficulties provided an adequate bivy site with running water, which saved precious fuel, time, and energy. A steep rock wall rose above the bivy, broken by several thin ice and snow ribbons. Only one ribbon appeared mostly unthreatened by falling ice, snow, or rocks. We flittermice ventured out early the next morning under the frozen cover of darkness.
Convenience is king these days. Recognition has replaced respectability. Ethics are compromised. Aesthetics mean almost nothing. For Steve and me, climbing the Rupal Face was meaningless unless accomplished on our own terms: pure alpine style. In July, a team of Koreans had repeated the Messner route, established 35 years earlier. The Pakistani Ministry of Tourism heralded the Korean ascent as “history making.” Yet the Koreans had not bettered the style of 1970. Have we come nowhere in 35 years? They could have done better. The Rupal Face deserves better.
Our decision to climb without high-altitude porters, oxygen, fixed ropes, radios, or pre-trip hype stemmed from our desire to climb in a manner we could feel proud of. Summiting was less important than being able to face ourselves in the mirror and not feel like we had cheated.
The first technically difficult pitches came in the dark. Thin ice ribbons threaded through the steep rock band. The new water ice was junk but easy enough. After three pitches, things got steeper. There appeared to be two options. To the left, a fat-looking ice ramp. To the right, a much thinner but shorter mixed passage. Against Steve’s advice, I went left. Though I had the lead pack, which was much lighter than the follower’s pack, it was still heavier than what I’d normally carry to lead ice. The ice was atrocious: just a thin veneer over snow, under which lay better ice. The outer ice layer and the underlying snow had to be completely cleared to get purchase. The climbing was time-consuming, exhausting, and virtually unprotected. At wit’s end, I down climbed and started up the thin mixed ground on the right. The ice here was similar, but not as steep.
Losing the protection of darkness, the face warmed rapidly in the sun and rocks began to bombard us with alarming frequency. Most came down the ramp to the left, from which I had just, thankfully, retreated. I was halfway up the right side, moving very slowly and cautiously. The climbing was insecure and poorly protected, though technically not too hard. Eventually, near the end of my rope, I got an A3 anchor in a horribly exposed spot for a belay. I brought Steve up a bit to give me more rope for leading and then continued, now getting a savage pump from spending so much time clearing ice and snow for tool placements and protection, of which there was distressingly little. A couple of times my feet slipped, causing my butt to pucker tight. Whipping was out of the question here. Rocks bombarded us, and the situation became chaotic. A bit further up, I placed a trustworthy cam and regained the confidence to engage the steep dry tooling above. I cautioned myself not to push the boat out too far. I was physically and mentally shattered. After a few futile attempts to work out a sequence and protect it, I downclimbed to the cam and Steve lowered me to the belay. Without a pack, Steve moved quickly to my high point and judiciously got down to business with the mixed section. I asked him how it was. Steve, prone to understatement, replied “Desperate!” Yet, I knew he was loving every bit of it.
At the belay, I understood why he had been eager to take over the lead: The stance was exposed to rocks hurtling down from the left. It was terrifying. All I could do was put my head down and try to keep my pack above me to protect my neck and back. A couple of baseballs hit me on the shoulder; fortunately, the big ones missed. Once Steve had me on belay, I was psyched to get out of there.
This pitch proved to be the technical crux of the route. Though we were still at only 5,300 meters, we sensed we had surpassed a major obstacle. Now, however, we began to really feel the effect of the altitude as we moved much more slowly up 100 meters of easy ice and mixed terrain to a protected ridge crest at 5,400 meters. It was 1 p.m. and we had been climbing for 10 hours, much of it on the crux pitch. We opted to bivy there to rest for a big day ahead.
The Rupal Face is quite complex. Viewed from afar, it appears as a series of rock bands intersected by left-angling ice ramps. It rises abruptly an honest 4,000 meters, so its scale is hard to appreciate. What appeared from below to be smooth, glaciated slopes would sometimes be menacing, active serac bands. The (relatively) safest areas were the rock bands, which provided protection from the continual snow and ice avalanches. Because of the avalanche threat, traversing the ice fields to gain the rocks was often dangerous and always exciting. The avalanche runnels were scoured clean and hard, which required deliberate placement of both ice tools. Doing this while moving as fast as possible was like doing anaerobic interval training. At this altitude, it was painful to exceed our aerobic thresholds, and it put us in an energy deficit from which it would take hours to recover.
The frequency and scope of the avalanches made me realize that climbing this face alpine-style was the safest way to go. The risks were acceptable once, but not for numerous excursions along fixed ropes.
Our third day would prove to be crucial. We crossed a couple of avalanche runnels that had unleashed tons of ice and snow during the night. The blast wave from them had shaken our tent on its tiny platform and pelted it with debris. We continued up seemingly endless 50° snow and ice until we reached the base of another steep rock wall, which offered protection from serac fall. Steve and Bruce Miller had climbed up left of this buttress during their attempt on the face in 2004, but now that route appeared to be threatened by seracs. To avoid exposure, we opted for the rock wall via a potential weakness on its left edge. A few pitches of high-quality mixed climbing led to more ice and eventually a ridge. As day moved into afternoon, I began to suffer from fatigue. Steve suggested that I needed to eat more, and he was right. Somehow, the Organic Food Bars were not as tasty as they were at home. I choked one down and drank some water, but I was cooked. Steve led on into the late afternoon. The ridge did not let up, and bivy spots were scant. I was grinding to a standstill and having serious doubts about my ability to continue.
Day gave way to night, and still we had not found a decent bivy site. There was a hanging glacier to our right, above the seracs, but getting there did not look easy. We stopped, ate, and put on the headlamps. Steve led a pitch in the dark that seemed to take forever. He told me later that he puked at the belay. Following, I could see why. It was steep ice followed by steeper, slabby rock covered in snow, with no pro. We were both exhausted; we had been out over 16 hours without sufficient food or water. A final traverse across the glacier led us into a niche underneath a severely overhanging bergschrund at about 6,000 meters. It took us another three hours to make camp and brew up. We really needed some sleep.
We slept late the following morning. I was not sure if we could continue. I was still tired from the previous day, and I did not get enough sleep. The altitude was debilitating and we were only halfway up the face. Nevertheless, we left camp at about 10 a.m. in the brutal heat of the sunlit face. The ground immediately above was seductively easy, so going up was agreeable. We moved very slowly. The easy ground yielded to moderately steep ice. The wall above was even steeper and more complex. We had gambled by coming this way to avoid the threat of the seracs and were not sure we would find a way through the complex rock wall above. We followed the ice up the path of least resistance and hours later discovered the key passage. Our gamble had paid off. A nice, fat ice flow poured over the shattered rock, providing passage to lower-angled ice above. After three or four pitches, we were back on steep snow. For the first time we felt that we might actually climb the face, if only our strength and will would hold out.
Once again the hunt for a bivy spot was on, and short of an exhausting three-hour ice- chopping fest there was little to be found. The ridge up to our left looked like it might be somewhat level, and it was snow-covered so we could dig in. Steve led as we simul-climbed up easy ice toward the ridge. As Steve neared the crest, he began climbing near-vertical snow on the bottom of a cornice. He tried to mount the ridge, and the snow gave way. TV-sized blocks hurtled down at me. I clung to my tools as the blocks disintegrated and showered me with shrapnel.
It’s always a good feeling to look up and see your partner dangling by one axe. Somehow, Steve had kept one of his tools in the snow above the fracture line and avoided a fall that may have pitched us both down the face. He swung back up and made his way along the ridge to where it met a rock wall. We dug in there at around 6,800 meters. The ridge crest started out about 30 to 45 centimeters wide. After an hour of work, we had excavated it to about a meter on one end and less than that on the other. It was barely long enough for the tent, one end of which hung over each side of the ridge. The front end butted up to the rock wall. We stayed tied in for the night and hoped we would not get broadsided by a gust of wind. Another exhausting 12-hour day.
Four breaths, one stick, four breaths, another stick. The altitude was undermining the strength that years of training had given me. After another late start, we rapped from our airy perch to climb the ice field we had been on the previous afternoon. I really had to concentrate on my breathing. If I tried to move quickly, I would go into oxygen deficit and have to rest for several minutes. I had to keep it slow. Simul-climbing with a Ti-bloc clipped to an ice screw for pro, we combined two 50-meter pitches into one of 100 meters. We led in blocks of 300 meters. After a few blocks, the angle eased and we put the rope away. We were getting up there now, over 7,000 meters. The summit seemed close. We carried on as if wading through thick sludge to the top of a snow ramp. It was late in the afternoon and now we could see, for the first time, the Merkl Icefield below us. Our fear lessened somewhat, as now we had an easier escape down the Messner route, if necessary.
We were at 7,400 meters and needed one more good day to summit.
Each minor effort brought me to my knees. Digging out the tent platform took hours. Eating, drinking, and melting sufficient water for the following day lasted well into the night. We discussed for some time when we should try to get up. We needed to get some sleep, but we also needed enough time to get to the summit and back. We decided to leave at 3 a.m.
At 1:30 a.m. on September 6 I heard Steve’s alarm. I had suffered a completely sleepless night, but the decision to head for the summit was easy. The weather was perfect. We carried only bare essentials: one pack with three liters of water, one liter of Spiz energy drink, a few energy bars, an ice screw, and our two ropes.
It was pitch black, but far to the south terrific lightning storms raged over the Punjab region. There was not a sound, just a constant strobe of flashes.
After two moderate mixed pitches, we stashed one of the ropes and continued with a single 5mm cord for rappelling. We entered another steep snowfield and found ourselves chest deep in rotten snow. It was the faceted snow I knew oh so well from the continental snowpack of my Colorado home. I’ve had plenty of experience wallowing through that shit. Hit it with the axes and hands. Knock some more down with the knees, then try to grovel up a bit more. Repeat. 100 meters of climbing took us over an hour. We would never succeed if the snow did not improve. It was almost daylight. I began fighting sleepiness. The days of work and sleep deprivation had taken their toll. I had to keep it together. I would put my head down on my axe to rest and would catch myself drifting to sleep.
We were going nowhere very slowly and feared running out of time and/or energy long before the summit. We took turns at the drudgery, carving a deep trench up the slope. The going was marginally better for the second. Eventually, the surface began to bear our weight. The new day dawned.
Above us was a complex structure of rock headwalls and gendarme-strewn arêtes. We climbed slowly up the snow and ice toward sunny rock. The arête to the left seemed the most appealing. I desperately fought sleep. I had no illusions about the consequences of a lapse in focus here. It was engaging to be in this state. It captured all of my attention. The further I journeyed into this semiconscious state, the fiercer and more delightful my torture became.
Drifting up, following Steve as if in a trance, I scanned the horizon for signs of flatter ground. Somewhere we found it, and I promptly lay down and rested for 20 minutes. In our base layers, we continued climbing over snow and rock in brilliant sunshine, trading the lead. Though Steve and I climbed together, I still felt alone. I continued my battle to stay awake. Being in front helped, as the routefinding gave me something to think about, but soon I’d have to yield to Steve, who moved like a machine: slow and steady.
As I had shed my outer, physical layers, my inner self was revealed. This is what I had come for. I could no longer feel, only think. The physical suffering had ceased. I had the will to keep going. I was spurred on by a personal soundtrack, the measureless blast-beats of black metal music pulsing through my head and coursing through my veins. Introspection was the catalyst I needed.
At 7,900 meters, to our surprise, we noticed faint footprints in the snow. We had reached the intersection with the Messner route, which the Koreans had climbed a month earlier. Mindless drones, we plodded upward.
At 4 p.m. we crested a ridge and reached the fore summit. The true summit was only a hundred meters above. The way was obvious and easy. Nothing left but the crying. For me, that would wait until I took another nap. We knew now that we would summit, and we also knew that darkness would descend upon us shortly thereafter. We needed to be prepared. Steve took off his boots to dry his socks while I slept at our lovely perch at 8,000 meters. When I awoke 10 minutes later, Steve put his boots back on and we lumbered toward deliverance.
The setting sun cast shadows to the east. As we passed into them, we felt the cold creeping in. We staggered on for an hour and a half to cover the final 120 meters to the top. We were both destroyed. After 4,100 vertical meters we ran out of mountain. K2, the Gasherbrums, and Masherbrum were clearly visible far to the east. Their odd symmetry bewildered me. The Hindu Kush mountains of Afghanistan lay closer to the north. Far below was the Rupal valley, where we started five days ago. It seemed so far away.
Steve and I embraced. Few words were needed, and we lacked the energy to say them. In our melancholic bliss, we sat in the pallid light of the setting sun and stared out into the eastern horizon, where Nanga cast her long, lurid shadow.
I looked down the Diamir Face that the Messners had chosen to descend. It did not hold the same allure for us; we found comfort in descending familiar ground.
Shortly after we left the summit, night rose from the valley. “At last,” I thought, “the gates have been opened.” In the dark, fear and pain seemed more appropriate. In our exhausted state, we gazed into the abyss and it gaped back. We retraced our path through a dark labyrinth of rock and snow. At one point we dropped the rope. Steve thought I had it; I thought he had it. Luckily, we found it not far away.
Eventually, we made it back to the trough we had carved through the faceted snow, which had now hardened into boilerplate ice. Facing in, we frontpointed down to its terminus, where we had cached the other rope. Two rappels, some messing around with a stuck rope, and we reached the bivy we had left 24 hours earlier.
Ours was a delectable suffering.
We woke late the next morning to overcast skies. The stretch of good weather was ending. We were still very tired and had a long, long way to go. We could see the Merkl Icefield below, down which we could escape via the 1970 route. Half a dozen raps took us to the ice field, where the Koreans had abandoned a four-person tent filled with supplies. I recalled seeing posters on the way in heralding their “Clean Mountain” expedition, or something like that. We were now on well-traveled ground littered with fixed anchors and ropes, and in a few places we used the Korean ropes. It seemed pointless to walk down a steep slope without at least grabbing onto them. We found a bag with new gas cartridges, which we carried down for future use. We left nothing on the face of our own but several anchors scavenged from our meager rack.
The air thickened, filling our lungs with the purest of heavenly nectars: oxygen. We could see our base camp, some 3,300 meters below. Strangely, it seemed close. But by the end of the day, we were still far above the valley, and again we needed to bivy. We were on steep ground, it was warm, and we felt pretty good, so we kept descending into the night. Steve’s headlamp was burning out, and when I stopped to take off my hat I inadvertently dropped my headlamp. Now, we had to bivy. As my eyes adjusted to the dark, I made out a serac to the side. Steve led over to it and found a perfect bivy spot under the serac, where we pitched our small tent for the last time.
Two thousand meters to go in the morning, and it was not trivial. Most of it was face-in downclimbing on ice. My feet and calves were beat. My crampon points were dull and skittered from time to time. Below me, I saw Steve finally dismount from the face and set foot on dry land. What a relief! I was just a hundred meters from salvation when I glanced up to see a huge volley of rocks cut loose and headed right for me. All I could do was put my head down and hang on. It was Nanga’s goodbye kiss. The rocks ricocheted around me, but when they stopped was still standing. I quickly down climbed to Steve’s protected perch. We hauled our weary carcasses down the last few kilometers to the valley floor. Our jubilant liaison officer greeted us and, with the help of a few others, carried our packs to base camp.
We were transformed by our experience on the Rupal Face. Steve realized a lifelong dream and vanquished the pain of last year’s rebuff. I discovered my physical, intellectual, and emotional limits, and pushed them much farther than I had imagined possible. Having annihilated our outer skins, perhaps we glimpsed, if only for a moment, our true selves. Neither of us will ever be the same.
Area: Pakistan, Nanga Parbat
Ascent: Alpine-style first ascent of a direct route (4,100 vertical meters, ABO) up the Rupal Face of 8,125-meter Nanga Parbat; Vince Anderson and Steve House, six days up and two days down via the Messner Route, September 1-8, 2006.
A Note About the Author:
Vince Anderson, 36, lives in Ridgway, Colorado, home base for his international climbing and skiing guide service, Skyward Mountaineering. Asked for more information on his background, he provided a quote from Friedrich Nietzche’s Beyond Good and Evil: He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster.”