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200m From The Summit 200m From The Summit
2023-01-31 11:56:00

For once, this story began with a series of photos. At the beginning of 2020, like every day, I consulted my mailbox hoping to read an interesting email. Bingo, it was my lucky day, I discovered an email from Rodolphe Popier (editor for The Himalayan database) which is always exciting.

In it, a picture, a short description and a simple sentence "I think this line might interest you".

Rodolphe hit the nail on the head again!

I was immediately seduced, and I went to Google Earth to get a better idea. And there, I discovered a massive mountain of almost 7800m with an impressive face of 3000m. It seemed aesthetic, steep, wild and powerful. I could see a pure and direct line from the summit, a dream in short.

Without wasting a second, I shared the photo on WhatsApp with Tiphaine Duperier, my long-time climbing partner for these adventures. The answer came without delay: "so boss, when are we going?” The expedition was launched already.

Unfortunately, we had to wait a few years. Covid had spread and the borders had been closed. Our motivation on the other hand remained intact and we did not forget the Dhaulagiri II. In September 2022, the adventure finally began, we got closer and were on our way to the base camp.

After five days of trekking in the wild Dolpo, we spent our first night in our comfortable base camp near the village of Mukot.

Today is a big day, we are starting the preliminary exploration of the access to the foot of Dhaulagiri II’s North East Face. The route looks skiable, yet we were doubtful about the route that would take us to the bottom of the mountain.

On Google Earth, we could see a passage cutting through the middle of the glacier. Yet on the ground, our hopes of finding access were evaporating as we got closer to the glacier. Suddenly, our eyes scouted a 200m waterfall lined with steep, smooth slabs. The whole thing is overhung by imposing seracs. Not exactly every climber’s dream! The verdict was clear, plan A has fallen through.

It is raining, the weather is grey. So are the rocks, the ice and river. Everything is grey.

The valley is sunken, austere and seems destined to remain preserved from any human presence. Our morale wavers, could it be that the expedition is already coming to an end?

Affected by these unfavorable conditions, we don’t want to admit defeat and want to try to get one more sighting.

In the distance, we spot a passage on the right bank on steep and exposed ledges. After wandering in the middle of landslides and climbing up steep scree, we reach the start of the coveted ledge.

Even if the place is certainly not hospitable, suspended in the middle of a big wall of black rocks, it seems nevertheless more practicable.

It is necessary to go up, cross, go down, go up again, go down again... As we progress we begin to see the way out of this labyrinth. Slowly, hope is reborn. After two hours of difficulties, we finally contemplate the bottom of Dhaulagiri II. What a relief! The mountain is accessible, the dream continues.

Once we found access to the monster that had been haunting our thoughts for months, it was with a lighter heart that we began our acclimatization. On the program was a small six-day stay around the Mukot Himal and Dhaulagiri mountains with a pass to cross, summit and exhaustive scouting of the face. 

However, we still doubt the feasibility of our route. Google Earth, or rather our interpretation of the satellite images, was a bit optimistic. Our bags are heavy, not ideal for this type of tortuous and technical terrain. There is no way to find easy passages in these wild mountains.  

We must use our imagination, our cunning and a pinch of luck, but above all we knew we must force and persist to reach the pass.

The place is surreal, dazzling but absolutely unsuitable for a bivouac. Too bad! We are not at the end of our troubles. The gentle slope that we had imagined going down in order to reach the other side is in fact a mixture of hanging ledges and rocky bars interspersed with a few strips of snow. The descent looks interesting, but first we must rest. We are using an ice axe to pave a place for the tent at 5700m, under the pass, right in front of Dhaulagiri II, magical! 

As expected, coming down from the pass isn’t easy. After an attempt on the right, we have finally found our salvation on the left. After a little abseiling we can land our feet on the glacier which borders the North East face of Dhaulagiri II. We contemplate this immense wall as it’s the first time that we have such a clear view of the face.

I have already admired and skied some imposing mountains, but I have never felt so "crushed", intimidated by a summit before.  The face is majestic, steep and straight as it suddenly rises to 3000m high. Climbing is already a challenge in itself. Yet skiing it would be getting closer to the gril. In the unusual size of this face, this line seems skiable, it's scary! With time and perfect conditions, we may be able to tame it one day.

For the moment, it's better not to think about it too much. We'd better take advantage of the surrounding mountains and gently familiarize ourselves with the mazes offered by this massive face. 

The day before, after a quick inspection of the surroundings, without exchanging a word, our eyes landed on the same line. A mountain that we had barely seen on satellite views. A really nice surprise, and as a bonus, the least exposed line of the sector. In the middle of these sharp peaks, the skiable routes are rare; most of them conceal all kinds of dangers: avalanches, cornices, seracs...

The more we climb, the more spectacular the atmosphere becomes. The line is vertiginous, suspended above a rocky bar suitable for base jumping. On the left, fantastic seracs dominate the place. At this moment, the whole adventure makes sense. To be there, at the end of Dolpo, facing the Dhaulagiri, climbing a mountain that we had hardly suspected. 

With Tiphaine, we are in good shape, the slope is well sustained, and we are guided by the serac line which takes us directly to the ridge. We just have to enjoy the moment. But, as it is often the case in the mountains, these intense moments are often very short-lived. The already capricious weather is turning bad with exceptionally low visibility. We have just enough time to see Dhaulagiri I and the rest of our ridge that leads to the summit.

We continue as if fumbling in the dark and without visibility the navigation is hazardous. We find ourselves on large domes dotted with ledges and crevasses. We feel that the summit is going to escape us and we want to try our last trick. Like the little Tom Thumb, sow an ice axe or a stick as breadcrumbs every sixty meters, but without success. We have to face the facts. Since this morning we have been trying, it is not reasonable to continue in these conditions. We have decided to turn back at 6400m, 200 meters below the summit.  What a frustration!

The weather is getting even worse, and the situation can change quickly. We are in a hurry to get back down to reach the seracs, which will allow us to find our way easily; no more chance to get lost. This is when the technical skiing starts as we have imagined. The conditions are perfect. The slope is steep and the snow excellent.  It's a shame that the thick fog doesn't allow us to appreciate this elusive line in this spectacular setting.

But to finish, we have reached the bivouac all smiling and proud of our descent; the disappointment of having missed the summit for two hundred meters is a little attenuated. Moreover, we are aware that we should not take this kind of descent for granted. Even if the conditions, atmosphere, itinerary and skiing are great, they remain exposed to serac falls. But what a pleasure! On closer inspection, this line alone could be the goal of an expedition. 

It is via our satellite phone and the news from our families that we have learnt that all the expeditions to Nepal are folding up. Indeed, the forecast for the next ten days is alarming.

However, the base camp seems to be safe and, with Tiphaine, we have decided to stay to see if the forecasts are right. After two days of watching the snow and the rain bounce off our tent, we understand that they are right. The bad weather drags on forever, and we allow ourselves some time to think about the continuation of the expedition. We have two options, to wait or to return. Even if the end of the monsoon seems close and the arrival of the good weather is imminent, the amount of snow that has fallen in altitude is frightening.

Without snow the access to the foot of the face is already at stake, but here, with probably more than a meter of fresh snow and wind, it becomes a real lottery. Finally, we have decided to go back.

It's always hard to know if we have made the right decision, and we can't get that thought out of our minds on the way back. Maybe we should have waited for the nice weather to come back, for the snow to settle down... the face would have been in condition eventually.

But at the same time, we are also trying to console ourselves. Obviously, we have made the right decision, it was not the right year to go on such a big face.

Retrospectively, I still had a great time with Tiphaine. We enjoyed the place that had been rarely visited before, giving ourselves the opportunity to ski and climb while letting our imagination run wild. That's what we like most about the mountains, exploring remote places where you have to deal with uncertainty all the time. We only have one regret, not having been able to taste the magic of high altitude this time. I think we will come back; we have taken the measure of this exceptional face and we will have to persevere to tame it. 

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Words by | Boris Langenstein
Images by | Tiphaine Duperier

Words & images by | Athlete Name


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