The southeast ridge of Annapurna III is a saw-tooth monolith cutting straight through the heart of a cirque of mountains so remote and difficult to access that few have seen them. The ridge is mesmerising, and the history and hearsay behind the not-so-many-attempts drip with a fabled shroud. It is a compelling challenge for the alpinist. I had researched well, gaining information from those who had been before, but in April, when we first attempted to breach the south cirque, the technicalities and logistics of the approach came as a shock.
Pete Benson, Matt Helliker, and I were the climbers, accompanied by Pete’s wife Laura, and cameraman Ian Burton. Helliker and I took an earlier flight to Kathmandu—on the day of the Iceland volcano eruption. Subsequent flights were grounded, separating us from the rest of the team, and vital equipment such as climbing boots and tent. The peak fee, liaison officer, flights, freight, and agent expenses had all been paid, and all were non-refundable. After much deliberation Matt and I decided to continue with the expedition with the hope that the others would catch up.
Four days into the approach, and with still no sign of flights leaving Britain, 20 of our porters decided to quit, leaving just six to carry everything for another three days over the most technical, dangerous, and unknown ground so far. What finally stopped us was a landslide, which we have since discovered has been washed away to reveal smooth glaciated walls. Matt and I were in no doubt that if our porters attempted to cross this obstacle, one of them would die. No expedition is worth the death of a local, so we turned around while we still had all the porters to carry our belongings.
Back in Kathmandu, having invested so much time, effort, and money, and feeling that we had let down all who had supported us, Helliker and I were adamant in trying again. In this, we were boosted by our agent's generous offer to give us a vastly reduced price for the autumn. Samsung had already invested £10,000 in our first effort, and now they were prepared to contribute another £10,000 to make it happen all over again, albeit this time with the more certain, but still not guaranteed, approach by helicopter.
At the start of October Benson, Helliker, cameraman Dave Reeves, and I were this time on the same flight to Kathmandu. An Air Dynasty helicopter pilot named Pemba would fly us to base camp. Flying by helicopter is not as simple as it sounds. In fact it was very committing. Once the team was in, getting out again, if the weather turned bad, would prove extremely difficult, if not impossible. This could leave our party—which included cameraman, cook, and cook assistant— having to walk out via the unknown 5,000m technical pass that had stopped us in the spring.
After several flights along the Seti Kola Gorge, flights akin to something from a Vietnam War film, we stood in freezing cloud listening to the fading sound of the helicopter. From the air we had decided base camp should be high up the moraine toward the foot of the east ridge at ca 4,600m. Surrounded by unclimbed rock walls as big as any in Yosemite, and some of the highest mountains on the planet, we felt insignificant but extremely happy.
However, after exploring the base of the southeast ridge, we quickly realized that exfoliating rock (which rumbled regularly down the slabs at the start of the ridge) and a double serac hanging above the couloir (the only entry onto the ridge) would make an attempt suicidal. We needed a change of objective. Our back-up plan was the unclimbed six-and-a-half-kilometer-long east ridge. It was the only feasible option visible.
After several weeks, all we had to show for progress was four ascents to a snow hole at 6,000m on the crest, 1,400m above base camp. One sortie above the cave reached 6,200m, but gale force winds, experienced on all but three days, called an end to the expedition.
After an anxious wait, Pemba arrived in the helicopter, but rising cloud prevented him from leaving, and after several attempts he and his B2 Eurocopter accepted they would have to spend the night at our landing zone. The following morning was a tense time. This was the highest altitude in history that a B2 had been parked up and turned off. After the sun had been shining and warming the machine for 30 minutes, a down jacket and blanket were removed from the battery, and the rotors defrosted with boiling water. Benson and Reeves were the first to leave, but it took three more shuttles until team and equipment were evacuated, and the mountains were alone once again.
Since my return I have questioned our philosophy: Was it right to go back to Annapurna III? As one of my friends said, “Taking a chopper is not very Shipton-Tilman.” The most sensible solution would have been to move on to something new, but when has climbing ever been about doing the sensible thing? The more I think about taking a helicopter to base camp, the more I think it was the correct decision (apart from not going at all). The most obvious argument I can come up with for flying is that it avoided the death of a local, and I was under no doubt that this would have happened.
Is our flight to Annapurna III any different than that made by hundreds of climbers every year to Denali, or to any of the other Alaskan ranges? Is it different than the flights made by climbers to Antarctica, Baffin, Logan, Lukla, Skardu, and Everest base camp, or a skidoo into a Canadian ice climb?
My main concern is the precedent we might be setting. In years to come will rich climbers from developed countries fly into base camps because of my decision? Did Chris Bonington stop to consider his ethics when he took a plane into the Grandes Jorasses? Did Will Gadd think twice before flying a chopper to Tengkangpoche?
One concern would be the loss of earnings by porters, but this is hardly valid, as the track to the south side of Annapurna III is certainly not a trade route; since 1981, 10 expeditions have attempted to reach this side of the mountain, and between three and five of these (there is some confusion in the available information) didn’t make it.
Another argument against flying may be our selfish use of a limited resource: in using the helicopter we are delaying more important work of building bridges or flying rice to inaccessible areas, for example. However, this is no longer the case. Privately owned companies like Air Dynasty are in the business of making money by chartering helicopters.
However, try as hard as I may to justify and reason with myself, the feeling of having not taken on the full challenge is still rather overwhelming.