Meru South, west face/northwest ridge to below summit, BASE jump of northeast face; Meru Central, second ascent, west face/southeast ridge. May 23 saw the completion of a six-year project to climb to and perform a wingsuit BASE jump from the “highest-altitude cliff in the world,” by my wife Heather Swan and I.
Combining alpinism and BASE jumping (BASE climbing or Paralpinism) goes back to 1990, when Jean-Marc Boivin leaped from the Grand Capucin in the Mt. Blanc Range, having made the second winter ascent of the route O Sole Mio, on the east face. In 1992 Nie Feteris and I set an altitude record for BASE jumping when we leaped from Great Trango Tower, after climbing the northwest ridge. In the last 10 years a new generation of hard climbers, like Dean Potter, Leo Houlding, Valery Rozov, and the Blanc-Gras brothers have extended their interaction with wilderness by combining climbing and BASE jumping.
Inspired to join me and challenge my world record, Heather spent six years learning to rock climb, mountaineer, skydive, BASE jump, wingsuit skydive and wingsuit BASE jump. In 2001 her attempt to BASE climb the Great Trango Tower failed due to avalanche danger and 9/11, though she did reach the summit.
In addition to Heather and me, our 2006 expedition included James Freeman (BASE jumper), Malcolm Haskins (lead climber), Michael Hill (climber), and Tove Petterson (climbing camerawoman). Sam- gyal, Mingma, Norbu, and Tinless Sherpa helped us. The amount of gear required for the jump and filming necessitated a multi-camp, fixed-line approach to the climb. The top section of the northeast face of Meru South is vertical for 800m, an aesthetic line to BASE jump. Meru South (6,660m) has been climbed only once, in 1980 by a strong Japanese team led by Kenshiro Ohtaki, via the southeast ridge.
Our route ascended the west face. Due to heavy late winter snow it took 16 days to establish base camp on the upper Kirti glacier at 5,300m. The upper Kirti is an impressive box canyon, bounded by Thalay Sagar and Kirti Stambh to the west, Bhrigupanth to the northwest, and Meru to the northeast. The west face of Meru has two large rock buttresses separated by a wide snow/ice field. There are future possibilities for high-altitude, big-wall routes on granite. However, our team focussed on the alpine route in the center, though we had difficulty finding information or photos of this side of Meru.
A straightforward gully led to Camp 1 at 5,550m, atop a small spur, below and to the side of an imposing serac band. The route to Camp 2 avoided this serac band and crossed an exposed snowfield. We chopped a ledge at 5,880m, beneath a rock buttress that leads to Meru Central. Just above Camp 2 James Freeman was struck with altitude illness and had to descend rapidly. He ground-launched his canopy and traveled the 580m to base camp in four minutes, where his symptoms soon cleared.
Camp 3 was at 6,200m atop another serac band. The route above was steep, and spindrift avalanches were constant. We built two snow caves that became our home for nine days. With its narrow, fan-like shape, Meru South attracts high winds that blast and harden the upper slopes. We fixed 11 pitches above Camp 3 before topping out at the col between Meru Central and Meru South. This took six days, due to a combination of bad weather and hard, 50-70° ice. From the col we fixed a rope to the summit of Meru Central (6,310m), which became a base for camera operations. [Malcolm Haskins and Michael Hill first reached the summit on May 17. On the 23rd Haskins, Petterson, and four Sherpas reached the top to film the jump—Ed.]
To access the top of the wall on Meru South we climbed three more pitches above the col. At an altitude of 6,604m, we dug out a 50cm-wide ledge above the vertigo-inducing northeast face. For three days our team climbed from Camp 3 to the exit point, hoping to jump. However, low cloud over the Meru Glacier obscured the landing area. Finally, on May 23, after waiting at the exit point for five hours, we had a brief opening in the clouds. Heather and I jumped at 2:15 p.m. Our wingsuits took about four and a half seconds to inflate, after which we rapidly accelerated away from the wall. We took 45 seconds to fly about one kilometer down the Meru Glacier, passing Meru Central, before opening our parachutes near the bottom of the southwest pillar of Shivling. The jump set a new world record for altitude BASE jumping and wingsuit BASE.
Although our team spent 23 days on the mountain, the route could probably be climbed in lightweight style in less than a week. We graded the route alpine 3+ (North American Alpine III WI2 5.5). For more information or a copy of the documentary film, visit www.baseclimb.com.
Glenn Singleman, Australia