The monster roared and an earth-shaking rumble erupted from the darkness. That’s the way it is out here, everything’s alive and often trying to kill you! The glaciers we’d been living on for the last couple of weeks frequently groaned their warnings and we were but tiny ants in a ring made for a rhino.
It was 3.45am and we’d just crossed the bergschrund on a 1200m North Wall of a virgin peak in this isolated corner of the Indian Himalaya. The map marked the summit as being 6295m, but this is the land time forgot and maps must be treated with extreme caution. I was relieved we’d made it into the sanctuary of our couloir before the huge serac up to our right released its load. Above me, the reflections of Dave’s head torch flickered off the rock walls, illuminating snapshots of grandeur. I kept an eye on the rope that joined us, moving when beckoned and already savoring moments of inactivity, leaning into the slope and easing the pull of the heavy sack on my shoulders. It had been four days since we left Advance Base Camp and despite consuming most of our food, enough kit to support us in this mountain environment was not light. The size of the pack became truly apparent as Dave reeled me into the depths of a cave and it began to wedge me in place. I was relieved to swap for the lighter leader’s pack and even more pleased to discover the squeaky condition of the steep ice pulling out of the cave.
A grey morning dawned as I got into some kind of rhythm moving up the less consolidated snow in the upper couloir. I edged ever closer to the thin slither of white falling from the steep corners above. From a distance it’s impossible to tell what the white lines you’re using to join the dots consist of: icy neve with solid substance, or loose snow doing little more than getting in the way. The latter could easily shut us down and force us, with danger and uncertainty, toward the jaws of one of the guarding seracs. I scraped the pick of my axe down the back of the first corner, before swinging with all the hope I had.
“Thwock!” It stuck fast. I smiled and “thwock, thwock, thwock” danced up the groove to find a belay before the next steepening.
Once Dave arrived we set about getting our second rope ready, switching to pitching from moving together.
“Do you wanna carry on?” he said staring up. “You like the steep stuff right?”
I was tired enough to be indifferent, but far too psyched to think about turning it down.
“Sure,” I replied. “Hope it’s as awesome as it looks!
A shout from Dave made me glance over, just in time to see his belay plate bounce off toward the couloir below.
“1000 meters of Italian hitches it is then!” I reasoned, knowing that retreat wasn’t really an option. Climbing a new face in a position like this requires a very high level of commitment, along with a healthy dose of optimism. To reach this North side of the mountain we’d walked for two and a half days, crossing a 5500m pass, wading through icy rivers and scrabbling around on some of the loosest moraine I’ve ever had the joy of encountering. Now the best way to go was up!
“Lower me down to the lip,” I said. I knew it was a very long shot, to hope the plate may be retrievable, but it had to be worth a shot! As I glanced over the edge I realized someone must have been looking over us: the plate lay precariously on top of the soft snow in the couloir. I crept my feet down the groove, doing my best not to undo our stroke of luck.
“And you’re not religious!” I joked, handing the plate back to Dave.
The pitch started promisingly, with good ice and rock gear. After a few meters, however, I had to leave the security of the gully and start moving left for a steep ice smear falling from the main corners above. The white became far closer to snow than ice and the best holds consisted of a few small fins of rock. I searched the area, hoping to find something solid I could clip the rope to, to make me feel safe. A small cam was all that presented itself. I carefully balanced up onto the first little fin and kicked the next one with my left foot. I hovered for a while, all too aware of how alone we were: the radios we’d bought to allow communication with base camp, didn’t work less than a day's walk from there and we were now five days away! This was no place to rush. I teetered over to the ice as freezing spindrift poured down on top of me.
Finally, a spot to place a screw. The security of solid axe placements eased my angst and I quested on up only to find the ice quickly deteriorate again: this was definitely not in the bag. More delicate climbing led me up to another junction in the road. I surveyed my options: the ice I was on flowed left over another steep bulge, appearing wafer thin and incomplete; to my right it looked like a couple of steps onto ledges would gain height more safely. It did but the final ledge landed you in a cramped position beneath an overhanging wall. Over on the left, thin ice dribbled from above. In comparison to what I’d been hoping for it was pathetic! But easier ground looked tantalizingly close. I took time to arrange gear around a loose crack and crawled over. Attaining a standing position instantly forced you out from the bulging rock. I wrapped my hands round a wide crack at the back of the overhang and lay backed out, giving me a limited time to scratch around in the ice for something to use. Nothing... damn! There had to be a way.
Time spent to-ing and froing, made me think about how long I’d been on the pitch. Come on! I have to do this! We can’t be shut down by something so short. Lean out, step up………….Grrrrrr! I couldn’t commit; not here; nothing felt close to certain, including the gear.
I leant out and looked round the corner from the right end of the ledge, at what I expected to be a blank steep rock wall: “Yes!” A small foot ledge lead right to what appeared to be a short steep crack and another chance of success. I arranged good gear and made steep moves up the crack to reach the ledge. Unfortunately ledges don’t always give you sanctuary until you’re on them! A fact, which was highlighted as I scratched around through the loose snow finding nothing but sloping granite. By the time I finally made it up the rope drag was awful and our “large” alpine rack had all but dissolved into the pitch. I lay-backed up the side of a huge flake and slotted the rope in behind it.
“Safe!” What a cheeky pitch!
As with baltic, spindrift-filled belays in Scotland, Dave had been wounded by the freezing cold inactivity. Seeing him arrive still shivering in a huge down jacket at the belay, I didn’t envy the icy cell he’d been lashed to. It was clear that more climbing was required before his cockles were even going to be tepid, so I passed him the rack and pushed him on through.
Eventually we emerged on to the large band of snow a third of the way up the face. So good to have the plum line in the bag for that section! Unfortunately the face became far more complex from here on out and route finding promised to be interesting. Dave led us right across the large expanse of snow, searching for the line of weakness we’d spied through our binoculars. Moving together across such a large open snowfield, with sparse protection, is where you really rely on the trust you have in your climbing partner to stay solid.
Large rock walls looming down from above cued us to climb back up left. Which groove to enter or ice wall to climb was not always obvious, but keeping the faith and moving on up seemed to do the trick. It felt incredible to be all-alone, questing up such a huge face in the Himalayas! The climbing was really fun and the sunshine creeping round to hit me at the belay reflected a beaming smile from my face.
A snow lip at the base of the central snow bowl presented our first obvious bivy site, but with a long way to go and daylight still remaining we decided to push on. Working my way up a ramp out to the right I began to regret this decision as each ledge I reached turned out to be sloping, small and unsatisfactory. Halted by a rock wall soon after sunset I asked what Dave thought of the ledge he was standing on (they always look better from above). He was hopeful we might be able to shape it into a pretty reasonable bed for the night, so I fixed the rope to a nest of gear and rappelled down. When enlarging a ledge, the materials you have to work with dictate the difficulty of your sculpting: Snow is normally quite straightforward; ice is hard work, but possible; rock is game over. Excavating back to a line of rock spelled the end of our 5* slumber dreams! We’d both sat through nights before, though often with far fewer warm clothes or sleeping bags, so we were happy enough.
Sitting in our sleeping bags, legs dangling in space, staring out at the last of the light fading over the mountains as it unveiled a blanket of stars, didn’t feel too bad a backdrop for dinner! The major factor with our sleep set up was that we were sharing a lightweight RAB mountain tent. This proved perfect for lie down bivvies, but when trying to sleep sitting down the tendency is to lean on your rucksack… in opposite directions, meaning the first part of the night was spent in a tug of war for the tent. Despite feeling confident I could probably win this, in the end I decided snuggling over in Dave’s general direction was more reasonable.
I quite easily slot into the position of Mr. Motivator at times such as these, trying to emit positive energy and crack the whip a bit.
Mornings are always slow to get going from mountain bivvies, but we both decided we’d had enough rest to rappel back down and move left to access a more direct line up the center of the face. I was really enjoying my morning brew, until the spindrift started pouring down on top of us that is! This made organizing and packing everything back into bags a whole lot harder to do without taking several kilos of snow along for the ride! Dave managed to escape first and climbed up to recover some of our gear, before heading back down to the other line. By the time I rappelled down to join him I was freezing cold and not impressed by my morning ice shower. So much in fact that I managed to miss the ramp I was descending to, giving myself an extra 30m to re-climb! I knew the only cure, given the situation, was a healthy dose of climbing and was pleased to start up the first pitch. Two fun pitches brought us to a line of grooves to our left. We hoped these may allow access to the center of the upper part of the face, but joining Dave at the belay, it was clear to me that this line was not in condition. It was steep and filled with nothing but loose snow.
I set out traversing right to find us an alternative way to the top of the face. This next pitch was situated in an outrageously exposed position; reminiscent of Traverse of the God’s on the Eiger. Some steep moves brought me on to the ice field above, and a great viewing platform above. With the day marching on we started moving together again and I continued up right seeking out a way back to the center of the face. As I scraped away at the ice, trying to excavate a worthwhile screw placement, I wished I hadn’t agreed to hang on to the second's pack; it really felt to be gaining weight! The quality of the ice would tempt you on with squeaky nevé allowing fast secure progress, before throwing cruddier and all together tenuous terrain our way. Dave was out of sight for long periods, leaving me alone in my own tired world to find the way. Three times I dug for solid ice to protect us from a slip, only to fail and move on.
“I need to take a couple of minutes to have something to eat and drink,” Dave exclaimed when he joined me.
“Isn’t that what belays are for?” I replied, loathe to waste precious time. Nightfall wasn’t far away and we really needed to summit today, I wasn’t interested in another cold night in this vertical world. It feels great to get into a flow and eat up huge faces in a single day, but to achieve this requires a constant pressure to keep moving efficiently. I quite easily slot into the position of Mr. Motivator at times such as these, trying to emit positive energy and crack the whip a bit! This situation was a little different though and Dave was right, our aching bodies and frazzled minds would benefit from a quick timeout.
Up right, a wide gully led to a shoulder above, likely providing an easy escape to more straightforward slopes to the summit. Even in our state of exhaustion we both agreed this was not the route for us! We were still having too much fun and wanted to savor our adventure; drawing the proudest line we could up this incredible mountain. Soon Dave was motoring up an eye-catching ice goulotte between steep rock, before disappearing into a chimney. The rope kept moving steadily up. In all the years we’ve climbed together I’ve never known Dave to look anything but solid, however long we’ve been on the go for. It was really enjoyable climbing, even with cramp threatening my aching muscles.
Dave had belayed below a bulging ice corner and confirmed that cramp had reached his weary body too. I accepted the pitch with far less gusto than usual, hoping that easier ground lay just round the corner. I bridged up into the corner, placing a couple of cams out left. I yarded up with all my might and swung at the bulge… Bomber! Continuing in this diagonal line I ended up making a couple of very balancey bounces, before taking a belay below delicate steep ground. Surveying our options and noting how unprotected one move in particular, would be for Dave, I suggested he make a lower traverse and arc around me to gain the ice field up and left. As soon as untying was required to flick round some bulging rock, I realized this may not have been the best of tactics! 'Ah well, shouldn’t be far to go now' I thought.
I had hoped to sit staring out at a perfect sunset, framing the best mountain view of my life, riding the crest of an incredible wave of elation and relief on the summit of our new mountain. When it became apparent that this wasn’t going to be the case, I grabbed a couple of brief moments to enjoy the still beautiful picture as another day came to a close. In all my years of life and climbing, adventure is what I’ve always strived for. Searching for the most memorable experiences I can find the opportunity to make. Provided with an old, distant photo taken years earlier, by Moran, and trekking all this way in to the Himalayan wilderness to find a line up such an amazing unclimbed mountain is the meaning of adventure! Before too long I was pulling myself onto the snow ridge. It swept down from the darkness up to my left. Somewhere up there was the summit and I didn’t want to stop until I was there. So I continued, 50m of rope slicing the shadows between Dave and myself. When the ground finally stopped rising I threw my arms in the air and let out the loudest whoop I could muster.
It was 8.02pm on the 2nd October and we’d made it.