American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Lightening Strike, The First Ascent of the North Face of Arwa Tower in India

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  • Publication Year: 2008

Lightning Strike

The first ascent of the north face of Arwa Tower in India.

Stephan Siegrist

Mick Fowler and Steve Sustad were the first foreign mountaineers to see Arwa Tower, hidden between two lines of ridges above the remote Arwa Valley, in a restricted zone near India’s border with China. Fowler’s photos from the first ascent of the peak in 1999 made their way around the world, and the American Alpine Journal used one on its cover in 2000. I saw this photo in the climbing library of an American friend, and I was so fascinated by the beautifully formed mountain that I kept taking pictures of the journal’s cover. However, attempting the peak would have to wait. I still had other projects in mind, and the cost of a permit in this military zone would have burst my budget at the time.

Finally the Indian authorities reduced the immense cost of the permit, and thus it became clear that the time had come to take on the challenge. In addition to Fowler and Sustad’s route up the northwest face, a French expedition had climbed two new routes up Arwa Tower in 2002, on the south face and northwest buttress. Later that year, a Swiss expedition climbed a couloir left of the north face to the east ridge and then on to the summit. But the main north face was untouched.

The meticulous planning and preparation for our expedition took up a lot of time. Once the team was assembled, permits received, gear shipped, and the last bits and pieces cleared up, on April 28,2007, we flew from Zürich to India. After several days on bumpy roads we reached Badrinath, and from there we and our porters carried our luggage to base camp at 4,350 meters, which we reached on May 5. Although we had a lot more information than Mick Fowler did, we still weren’t even sure if this was the best place to start up the mountain.

In any case, first we had to deal with other problems. We were divided into two groups: a women’s team made up of Ines Papert and Anita Kolar, who wanted to attempt the French route on the northwest buttress, and our group of Thomas Senf, Denis Burdet, and me, who had our eye on the compact granite of the unclimbed north face. Our first evening in base camp was not quiet. Anita was in the early stages of pulmonary edema, and her condition worsened so much that we decided to put her on heavy medication and transport her to a lower camp. We packed her into a large haul bag and pulled and carried her for six hours through the night, down to a military camp in Gastoli, which is empty in spring; here we spent the rest of the night. Thanks to the support of our accompanying film crew and a friend, we managed this exertion without getting altitude sickness ourselves. Moving lower worked wonders on Anita’s condition, and she and Ines continued down to Mana and on to Josimath to recover.

However, we were not done with health issues. After we returned to base camp, all of us suffered from stomach problems. Denis was so sick that he had to stay put while Thomas and I went out to look for a suitable advanced base camp. After a few hours of searching for the right route, we reached a small pass that led us into the “Lost Valley“ and finally gave us an unobstructed view of the mighty Arwa Tower. We both stood there gaping at the face, mouths wide open, like children who have received a much-wanted Christmas present. At the foot of the imposing north face, at 5,300 meters, we found a suitable place for our camp on a huge glacial table.

It was the 18th of May when we hauled the last gear to advanced base camp on skis and plastic sleds. It was backbreaking work, especially because we did not have any porters to help us. But we were eager to get started. We had studied the face and agreed on climbing possibilities and style, as well as the most logical and safest route: a zigzagging line through the compact granite, resembling a bolt of lightning. (The route was later christened Lightning Strike.) We would be somewhat protected from falling ice by overhanging rock, and we hoped to find good cracks.

Quickly, however, we discovered that nothing would come easily on this route. On the second rock pitch we had to wield a shovel to free the cracks of snow cornices that had been formed by strong winds under an overhang. This required seemingly endless work just to win a few meters. The cracks soon became so big that even our largest Camalot no longer fit. Thus on the third pitch we had to move onto the smooth, polished wall. Luckily we had packed our climbing shoes and some bolts, but we soon discovered that the rock features we’d studied in Fowler’s pictures were unusable for free climbing. The compact, icy rock forced us into difficult and time-consuming aid. We felt like nanosurgeons on these icy slabs, working with birdbeaks instead of scalpels. Without “birdies,” we would not have stood a chance of moving forward. We knew this north face would be a huge challenge, but not in our wildest dreams did we imagine we would have to fight so hard in the first few meters. We managed only two rope lengths on this day, not a lot on a 900-meter rock wall!

In Sanskrit Arwa means “horse,” and this horse did not want to be tamed. On our second day on the wall it began to snow. At first it was only light flurries, but then it became stormy and the snow fell continuously. On the fourth day it was really blustery, and we could hardly set up our portaledge. That night small avalanches kept sliding down the wall. As I lay in the hammock underneath our portaledge, Thomas and Denis had to continually shake snow off the fly above us. The weight of the wet snow strained our little home, and the seams of the canopy began to tear. After a long night, we found ourselves encased in snow and ice, just like the face. Since it was still snowing continuously, we decided to rappel and fix our lead and haul ropes from our portaledge camp to the ground. We hoped to return in better conditions.

Over the next few days it snowed so heavily in base camp that the kitchen tent and three other tents collapsed under the weight. We tried to imagine what the face might look like! The weather improved on the 26th and so did our moods. Two days later we finally got back up to ABC, where we planned to spend the night before returning to the face in the early morning. Because of the new snow the climbing appeared unstable, but we hoped the morning would reveal to us how we should proceed. However, that evening Thomas shook with a high fever. This lean, tough figure who never complains had been quiet during the ascent, and we had not known he was ill. He did not want to ruin our chances. But we had no choice but to go back down to base camp.

With little time left on our permit, we would have to start soon if we wanted a chance at the summit. Although Thomas was still feeling ill, we returned to advanced base camp on May 30. That evening it began to snow again, but when we crawled out of our tents at midnight a wonderful full moon lit up the mountain. I knew our chance had come.

The morning sun warmed us as we reached the top of the ropes we had left. Above, the terrain remained demanding, and we hoped it would ease farther up. All day we struggled to reach a somewhat protected bivy site at around 6,000 meters, and in the last light of the day we set up our portaledge.

The next morning I was startled to hear Denis yell “merde!” He had been struck by a rock on the shoulder, but thankfully the straps of his backpack had absorbed much of the impact and no bones were broken. Still, he would have to rest in the portaledge all day. Too bad, I thought—it had been his turn to lead the next block! In spite of everything, this was our record day: Thomas and I managed four short rope lengths before evening.

On June 3 it snowed again nonstop. We used this break to recover. Fortunately, Denis’ shoulder proved to be “just“ bruised and Thomas, who was still getting over his cold, seemed to be convinced that if he gave his germs to me he would get better faster. We spent the day downing aspirin and antibiotics. The summit was still far off, even if it seemed to be dancing in front of our noses. We passed the time with our national card game, Jass, which helped distract us from the continuous questions: What would happen next? Have we got enough gas? When is it going to get easier? You can make yourself crazy with these questions.

During the day it was pleasantly warm, but the nights were uncomfortable. In the cold of the night, the urine bottle was coveted. Lying in my sleeping bag, I would call to Denis, “Tu peux me passer le piss bottle,“ and this precious container would be passed down to the lower floor. The contents may have smelled strange, but the bottle was very warm.

The portaledge had to be kept closed the whole night because of spindrift. As a result, the oxygen inside was reduced through our breathing and cooking; the lighter only spat small sparks at the cooker, and it took ages to get it going. The lack of oxygen also meant we suffered from headaches, and when the alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. we could not get rid of the feeling of fatigue. We felt like factory workers. Getting up was horrible, and it was always the same routine: cooking, eating, drinking, and then trying to force yourself into clothing, shoes, and harnesses. Each day Denis reminded us, “Pas toucher le tente!” If we touched the nylon tent a layer of ice that had built up overnight from our body vapor would fall on us like snow. Every evening we had the same thought. “Tomorrow is summit, day!” And then, once again, il wasn’t. The ramp system we’d seen in Fowler’s pictures, which looked easy from below, proved to be rounded and covered with icy snow; we had to dig to find tiny cracks for protection, and we could only manage two rope lengths a day. We were so tired that it was hard to concentrate, and we were dropping too much gear. Time, gas, and food were running out.

On the seventh of June the morning was extremely cold and accompanied by a lot of wind. We cut through a gap to the northwest face and then continued through deep snow to the western ridge, and then we were nearly there. The top was a proper two-meter boulder at 6,350 meters. “Allez! Allez!” We egged each other on like little kids. A few hard breaths and we each could take our turn on the summit—there was only space for one person at a time. After a week of utmost concentration, exertion, doubt, belief, joy, pain and hope, we sat on top in calm sunshine!

At four in the afternoon we began to rappel. We had to spend one more night in the portaledge, and then, at first light, we crawled out, packed everything up, and continued rappelling toward the foot of the wall, reaching advanced base camp early in the afternoon. Time was running out, and the porters were waiting below. Thus we continued down with all our gear to base camp, where we were received with beaming faces and a big summit cake. Five days later we were flying back to Switzerland, where it was already time to begin preparing for the next goal.

Summary:

Area: Garhwal Himalaya, India

Ascent: Capsule-style first ascent of the north face of Arwa Tower (6,352m) via the route Lightning Strike (900m, VI M5 5.9 A3), by Denis Burdet, Thomas Senf, and Stephan

Siegrist, May 31–June 8, 2007. Earlier in the expedition, the team climbed seven pitches over four days, leaving three ropes fixed for their final push.

A Note About the Author:

Born in 1972, Stephan Siegrist works as a mountain guide and expedition climber. He has climbed new routes in Patagonia, on Thalay Sagar in India, and on the north face of the Eiger, not far from his home in Interlaken, Switzerland. His website is www.stephan-siegrist.ch.

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