The Serpent King
The First Ascent of the West Face of Vasuki Parbat, India
I really wanted this one. So far, the great mountains of Asia had largely defeated me. Six big trips over 18 years had produced two summits and plenty of abseiling practice. In the last few years I had begun to question the investment, to consider giving up long trips to the Himalaya and Karakoram in favor of Scotland, Alaska, and the Alps. But a question kept reappearing: “Do you want to walk away a failure?” And I knew that I didn’t. I knew that if I stopped at that point I’d live the rest of my life knowing I had been bested by the big beasts. I wanted to climb a great new route to a high Himalayan summit, and then be free to choose my future. Until then Id just have to keep trying. I really wanted this one.
So I wasn’t pleased to be lying on a bed in a guesthouse in Gangotri, two days behind schedule, listening to rain hammering on the roof and watching the snow line creep ever closer to the Ganges. The rains that had devastated the subcontinent throughout the summer were still falling, now as a late monsoon. The authorities had closed the track towards the mountains, while landslides blocked the road to Gangotri. I was glad of our team: New Zealander Patricia Deavoll, my friend and stalwart climbing partner of many fine trips since our chance meeting on Alaska’s Tokositna Glacier, who possessed a much better Asian hit rate than mine. The indomitable Paul Figg, veteran of shared Alaskan epics, returning for a second round with the Garhwal. Rachel Antill, our expedition artist, hugely enthused by her first trip to India, making the best of our enforced halt with her sketchpad. And Satyabrata Dam, our multitalented liaison officer: Everester, polar traveler, and exploratory mountaineer. Between us we’d logged a lot of days in Scotland, Alaska, India, and New Zealand. We knew how to wait out bad weather.
Our patience was eventually rewarded with a beautiful morning, an early chill in the air, and perfect blue skies. Porters congregated and we were under way. Two hours later I caught my first glimpse of the west face of Vasuki. It looked hideously steep. Luckily the face was soon hidden by intervening peaks, making it easy to retreat back into the comforting delusion I use on Himalayan walk-ins: We’re just going for a nice trek with someone cooking us lovely food each night before a long sleep in a warm bag.
My delusion crumbled two days later as we dug base camp into a couple of feet of fresh snow. The great dark face drew our gaze, and we’d pause in our digging long enough to imagine ourselves up there. The mountains were laden with fresh snow, but Vasuki’s west face looked the same as it had in all the photographs. We’d chosen wisely: It was too steep to hold fresh snow.
Vasuki Parbat (6,782m), named for Lord Vasuki, the serpent king of Hindu mythology, lies between the huge pyramid of Satopanth (7,075m) and the famous Bhagarathi chain. It has a mysterious climbing history. The Indo-Tibetan Border Police claim to have made the first ascent in 1973, route unknown. The scant details have caused some to doubt the claim. A Japanese team made the first ascent of the broad, icy east face in 1980 after fixing ropes up the lower 600 meters of the route. In 1983 a French team made a siege attempt on the northwest ridge; a Welsh team attempted the same line in alpine style. No one had attempted the steeper west face until a Harish Kapadia photograph lured Mick Fowler and Paul Ramsden in 2008 to have a go at the compelling ramp and buttress cleaving the face. Heavy snowfall began on the day after they reached base camp and continued for 48 hours, putting paid to any chance of acclimatizing on easy ground. As they started up the face, which had remained in good condition, temperatures plummeted. They climbed over half the face, including most of the steep middle section, before lack of acclimatization and incipient cold injuries forced a retreat.
Our team’s original goal had been an unclimbed peak elsewhere in the Garhwal. But while the Indian Mountaineering Foundation had issued us with their permit, the state government of Uttarakhand refused the local clearance. With plane tickets to Delhi already bought, we needed a new Indian objective, one that was at least as attractive to generous grant-giving bodies as the original had been. Emails zipped between the UK, New Zealand, and India. Unclimbed peaks in Pakistan and long overland journeys got brief looks before early drafts of the 2010 AAJ told us they’d been climbed. Eventually we had a short list. Nothing on that list was of the same level as our original objective—except the west face of Vasuki. A 1,600m face, with glaring technical difficulties on a big hill, it had turned back one of the most effective alpine partnerships of our generation. Quite frankly, it scared me. Pat’s courage decided the issue. She wrote: “Let’s go and see what the good guys do.” And so, after confirming that the good guys weren’t planning to go back for another shot, we turned our faces toward Lord Vasuki.
W.H. Murray was thinking about the Garhwal when he wrote: “Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation) there is one elementary truth, the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too” (The Scottish Himalayan Expedition 1951). That was exactly how I felt when we finally committed to Vasuki. I began to believe that we could do it.
The weather was superb as we acclimatized on the lower section of the normal route on Bhagirathi II, but Pat was having a hard time; she felt cold and out of sorts, plagued by a persistent cough. And then I developed a head cold. But finally Pat, Paul, and I left base camp carrying seven days’ food, nine days’ gas, and, as the nights were bitterly cold, our warmest sleeping bags. This wasn’t going to be an elegant dash. It would be a grinding war of attrition. I found that oddly reassuring.
Pat led off from the top of the snow cone in the first light of a cold dawn. A thin runnel of water ice snaked down a narrow gully, an oddly intimate start to a 1,600m face. The gully bed and sidewalls were worn smooth by water and rock fall. We needed to be out before the sun came onto the face at noon. Pat flowed smoothly up the pitches, a consummate ice climber, while Paul and I struggled along behind with big rusacks and screaming calves. The sun was just coming onto the face as we left the gully to climb up and right onto the buttress crest where we planned to spend the first night. Deep snow exhausted us on the buttress, but still, the first day went as planned.
The next day began with arduous snow plodding up the ramp. Pat was having a grim time. Shed broken her back in a fall only five months before the trip, and now both her back and her knees were protesting. She wasn’t acclimatizing and felt constantly cold. We sat on our packs discussing what to do. Pat worried that she was holding us back; we reassured her this wasn’t the case. None of us were ready to consider breaking up the team, so we decided to press on together.
By mid afternoon the ground began to steepen as it ran up against the obvious crux: the rocky buttress that comprises the middle third of the route. We decided to bivouac early as sites would be scarce above. The next morning was fiendishly cold. A light breeze blew frigid air down the ramp, and we windmilled vigorously as we tried to keep some sensation in our digits. It wasn’t working for Pat, who had several numb fingers and toes. We moved up and left into a broad couloir, where we uncoiled the ropes to start pitching.
Pat said, “I could get down from here on my own.”
“Are you joking?”
“No. I’m serious.”
A pause, then, “I’m going down.”
We had no time for debate. The sun was about to hit the face. We had to make do with brisk, functional communication.
“I’ll take the haul line”
“Take the spare stove.”
“I’ll need an ice screw.”
We shunted gear from one to another. Is this the right thing? I rigged our climbing ropes for Pat to abseil on.
And she was gone. A shout to say she was off the ropes, and as we tied back in we watched her climb carefully down and across, out of the couloir’s line of fire, making for last night’s bivouac ledge.
The next pitch was horrible. I was still rattled from the events of the last half hour. I knew that rock fall might start any minute. I tried to climb fast, but couldn’t find a piece of gear to protect the belay. The climbing was steep and insecure, with loose blocks and dirty black ice that shattered far too readily. Eventually a tricam behind a creaky flake gave me enough confidence to hook a series of dusty edges onto decent ice and belay underneath a reassuringly protective roof. I had just started taking in the ropes when a huge block hurtled down the gully. It hit the top of the wall below me, spun out into space, then described a gentle arc toward Paul, who had nowhere to go. I saw him hunch under his pack just before the rock hit. He crumpled and slumped sideways. I thought he was dead.
Nothing but the distant clattering of the rock completing its journey to the glacier.
No. No. No. This hasn’t happened.
“Paul!” Shouting so hard I could feel my throat tearing.
Movement, then groans.
Slowly he righted himself and stood back up to the belay.
He’s alive at least. Thank fuck for that.
“Are you OK?”
“I think so.”
“Can you climb?”
“I think so.”
Paul is made of an indestructible material. Descending the west ridge of Mt. Hunter roped together in thick fog in 2001 we fell over a serac. Paul went a good 70 meters, 10 of them vertical. Yet within a few hours he was back to normal. And this time he appeared to have suffered even less damage. Treatment consisted of anti-inflammatories. Although we were both in reasonable physical shape, our nerves were frayed. Rocks, loosened by the afternoon sun, flew down the couloir. We put a brew on and whiled away the rest of the afternoon beneath the safety of our overhang. Back home Fowler and Ramsden had been generous in sharing their photographs and suggestions. We’d brought along laminated copies, and we got them out now to review the key ramp that would take us onto what Mick had referred to in the Alpine Club Journal as “great squeaky white ice traverse pitches.”
We never found that ramp. Perhaps that was an inevitable outcome of waiting till dark before continuing up the couloir. It was my leading block, and although the climbing was a brutal fight with gritty black ice, I felt a surge of optimism as we gained height. We were getting up this thing. At about 11 o’clock I reached the top of the couloir. Above me a free-hanging ice pillar dropped from an overhanging wall. So I swung out right, dry tooling onto the front face of the buttress and a series of sloping rock ledges. One sloped more gently than the rest.
“I’ve found our bivouac. Safe.”
If Paul was disappointed by my find he didn’t show it. Nor did he give me a hard time when I told him that I’d just dropped our only camera off the ledge while arranging the belay. An understanding partner is a great asset in these situations.
We were too tired to cook that night, but we did the right thing by making lots of drinks before trying to sleep. We would sleep for a bit, slide off the ledge, wriggle back up, sleep some more… We found out later that 300 meters below, Pat was also trying to sleep. Cold and lonely, lying in the open on the previous night’s narrow tent platform, she was wondering whether she’d made the right decision.
I woke properly with the first light of dawn. Paul, a resilient sleeper, slumbered on. How amazing it was to be perched on a tiny ledge halfway up a huge face in the vastness of the Himalaya. Things certainly weren’t going to plan, but they were going well enough. We could do this.
As we drank our morning coffee we watched Pat climbing down from the first night’s tent platform. We packed up and Paul led a descending line that took us neatly onto the ice traverse. He seemed to have forgotten how to place ice screws, and was taking several minutes to place each one. When I reached his stance he told me they had all been blunted by the gritty ice we’d climbed last night. Despite this it was good to be back on the route pioneered by Mick and Paul R., and even better to reach the instantly recognizable “pinnacle bivouac,” a magnificent spot right on top of an overhanging wall. A snow pillow forms on top of the pillar, and it doesn’t take much work to carve off the crest to form a perfect flat tent site. It has become customary to spend two nights here. Mick and Paul R. had made good use of their stay. Despite numb toes and blistering fingers they’d pushed on up fantastic mixed ground to a ledge beneath a steep rock tower. But then things started to go wrong as a long traverse left failed to outflank the tower. Running out of daylight they abseiled back down to the pinnacle bivouac.
I didn’t make such good use of the first day of our stay. I just fell off.
I wasn’t far up the first pitch above the bivouac when I leaned down to place a nut and suddenly I was falling, a nasty clattering fall out over the ice traverse and then down the horribly steep wall below. A small nut just above the traverse stopped me from shock loading the belay. I hung there for a few seconds, my dilated pupils trying to take in the immense drop below. I was terrified. The thought of the nut popping was hideous, and I began to scrabble frantically to get back up the wall onto the safety of the ice traverse. But the moves were too difficult, and it was just too soon, so I sagged back onto the rope gasping from fear and exertion until I could try again. More thought, less pedaling, and a very hard move gained me a placement in the ice ledge, and then I was up. I tottered back to Paul on the pinnacle, where I burst into tears.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”
“It’s OK. You’re OK. We’re all OK.”
“I’m sorry. I really want to get up this.”
“We will. It’s OK.”
I became convinced that Paul or persons unknown, having seen me fall, would ban us from going any higher. My head and neck hurt, and I felt confused and emotional. I’d clearly bashed my head. Paul wisely declared a rest day and began to put the tent back up. He evened- up the gear-dropping score by dropping a tent pole. The tent worked fine without it.
A long sleep seemed to sort me out. Paul was in the lead as brilliant icy mixed climbing took us to the base of the rock tower at about 6,000m, where Mick and Paul R. had traversed fruitlessly left. They had suggested that we try a direct line up the crest of the tower instead. The sun came onto the rock tower as we racked gear at its foot. I took off a glove and tentatively touched the rock. It was warm enough. I hung my pack on the belay and climbed with bare hands and crampons. I’m no geologist, but it seems to me that Vasuki is made of some sort of limestone, most of which is solid and compact. But the rock tower is horribly loose. I sent a steady stream of blocks and flakes over the edge of the buttress, careful to avoid testing Paul’s indestructibility any further. We climbed the tower in short pitches to make hauling easier, but the packs resisted all the way.
The tower was connected to the main face by a narrow, nearly horizontal, snow crest interrupted by short rocky steps. Above the crest’s junction with the main face was a blank looking rock wall that we believed was the penultimate barrier, the last being a hoped-for jink under the headwall.
The snow crest was the wildest bit of climbing I’ve ever done. The light faded and the evening wind blew strongly up from the huge voids each side of the crest. My face stung from airborne ice crystals as I shuffled à cheval along the crest. I was suddenly filled with joy at our situation: six days up an unclimbed face in a tremendous place, deeply committed, and moving forward in the most ridiculous way. I laughed and shouted for the love of our stupid, serious adventure.
By the time I reached the next rock step it was dark and the wind had strengthened. We needed shelter. It took us an hour to dig the narrow snow ridge down far enough to make something approaching a tent platform. Luckily we’d recently converted our tent to a Super Lite One Pole Narrow Pitch model, so it fitted well. As had become routine, Paul crawled in first, and I stood outside throwing in a random assortment of kit that I expected him to have sorted by the time I entered.
It was always delightful to crawl inside out of the wind. With the stove burning the tent soon warmed up, and wed peel off layers and relax. The reality of the mountain and the climbing would vanish, and we’d talk abstractly, as if in a pub back home. We slept well in our big bags, keeping civilized hours since it was far too cold to do useful climbing done in the early morning (or so we told ourselves). These snug nights were perfect for physical and psychological recuperation.
The next morning began with more cowboy action before the arête ran up against the rock wall. This did not look promising. It was smooth, compact, and slightly overhanging at the top. Would this measly little wall stop us after so much effort? We moved left, searching for a way through. Just around the corner a short, steep groove with a more helpful look about it gave hard, delicate moves up rock to reach fluffy rubbish snow. Thump, useless, a bit higher, thump, powder, then finally, at full extension, a solid stick in ice. I committed everything to that placement, hauling with both hands on the one tool till my foot was held by something in the powder zone and I got another good placement and pulled onto the huge upper snowfield.
The altitude took its toll as we moved slowly up the snow. Eventually we were unable to resist a well-protected campsite under the impending headwall. The wall above us was obviously impossible, so before turning in for the night we sneaked a look along the ramp. Further upward progress depended entirely on finding a way round the wall into the final gully. Our hearts were in our mouths as we explored. The snow ramp gradually narrowed till it was no wider than a boot, where a helpful flake allowed us to lean out and peer round the corner. There it was: A step down would be enough to reach the gully floor and outflank the wall. We were on.
Our world instantly expanded when we reached the summit ridge in the late afternoon of our eighth day on the mountain. The great pyramid of Satopanth dominated the southeast, while to the northeast we could see right over the Himalaya to the brown hills of Tibet. Looking down the east face of Vasuki we didn’t like what we saw: a steep snow and ice face, lots of seracs, and hidden ground. The summit rose to the north along the broad, undulating ridge. We set off that way, more relaxed now that we were off the face, enjoying the late afternoon sun. We camped in a little col between rocky steps just south of the summit, ate our last proper food, and talked about the descent.
“I don’t fancy the east face.”
“Not with blunt ice screws.”
“Would we have enough gear to get back down the route?”
“It’s a long traverse to get to it. Looks OK once we’re on it.”
“Northwest ridge it is then?”
“Paul, about the summit tomorrow. Would you mind if we didn’t stand right on top? I’ve sort of promised Lord Vasuki that we wouldn’t.”
“So have I!”
Our ninth day began with a moderate rock pitch. From its top we saw that the slightly higher point ahead was the summit. We avoided it by skirting a couple meters below on the west side. The summit seemed an irrelevance, just another rise on the ridge that led to our descent, and it was easy to keep our promise.
From here on we were on a sharp crest, surprisingly free of cornices, and its undulations gave us a magnificent day’s mountaineering. For long sections we were moving crab wise, our tools planted on the top of the east face, and our feet on the west. We were very happy. We’d climbed the west face, reached our summit, and were reveling in our three-kilometer skywalk. Although we’d been out a long time we still felt firmly in control. In the late afternoon we reached the junction of the northwest and northeast ridges, made a few rappels, and found a campsite. Quite unexpectedly this became the first miserable night of the climb. Although the traverse of the summit ridge had been superb, we had been moving in deep, very cold snow all day. With nothing left to eat, our bodies refused to warm up. We slept fitfully, waking to long periods of shivering. We were starting to weaken.
The steep sections were the easy bits. Continuing our descent the next day we abseiled down rocky steps among tangles of rotting fixed rope, and down-climbed snow couloirs. But each time the ridge leveled out we found ourselves in thigh-deep snow through which we made terribly slow progress.
I didn’t have much time left to secure my position as the champion kit dropper of the team. I bided my time, then seized the moment. Paul had just down-climbed a pitch of evil, shiny, snow-covered slabs. I was totally unable to follow and insisted on a rope. Balancing precariously on tiny edges, I swung my pack off, fished out a rope, and swung the pack on again without doing it up. One leaning move was enough to do the trick. Soon a stuff sack containing a headlamp, compass, map, and my beloved orange hat from the Dolomites sped down the north face.
As the angle of the ridge eased, our progress slowed until Paul had an idea:
“Why don’t we just drop off the north side of the ridge?”
“But that looks much steeper.”
The extra angle proved enough to keep us moving. We rolled, fell, bum slid, and floundered, accompanied by great sloughs of snow, down to the foot of the north face, where we stumbled around in the darkness in the general direction of Vasuki Tal, the lake at Satopanth base camp.
Eventually we found tracks made by climbers on their way to and from Satopanth, and we followed them back to the lake shore. We stopped by a little stream to fill our water bottles. The snow around the stream had melted, revealing grass. We sat on our packs and took off our crampons. The sky was full of stars. We said thank you to one another for keeping each other safe, for keeping going, and for getting up it. The marshy ground smelled of mud. It felt like Scotland, not the Himalaya, like the end of a hundred climbs before it and hopefully hundreds more to come. Where those climbs will be I don’t know yet. Climbing Vasuki has left me free to choose.
Postscript: After we lost sight of Pat on the morning of the fourth day, she down climbed into the initial ice gully and then abseiled (using the haul line and V threads) and down climbed to its foot. When we unpacked Paul’s pack we found that one gas bottle had been crumpled by an enormous blow. It was this propane-butane air bag that had saved Paul from significant injury or worse from the falling rock.
Area: Garhwal Himal, India
Ascents: The first ascent of the west face of Vasuki Parbat (6,782m), by Malcolm Bass and Paul Figg (1,600m, V,6 Damilano system: the crux was Scottish VI,7), October 4-13, 2010. They traversed the three-kilometer summit ridge and descended by the northwest ridge. This was the first alpine style ascent of Vasuki, and the second or third ascent overall. Other expedition members were Patricia Deavoll (climber), Rachel Antill (expedition artist), Satyabrata Dam (Liaison Officer), Chandar Singh Negi (cook), and Shankar Thapa (assistant cook).
About the author:
Malcolm Bass is a clinical psychologist specializing in people who self-injure. He lives with his partner Donna James on the edge of the North York Moors in the United Kingdom, where he climbs the soaring sandstone spires of Scugdale.
He would like to thank the Mount Everest Foundation, the British Mountaineering Council, The Alpine Club, and W.L. Gore (The Shipton Tilman Grant) for financial support of his expedition. Also DHL (freight), Wayfarer meals, and Mountain Hardwear for their support. Finally thanks to Anita and Mandip Soin and Khem Singh, all of Ibex Expeditions, for their kindness, efficiency and hospitality.