Friday, 23 November 2012

Windy in the Hongu

Chamlang, 7314m - not to be this time
I’m just fresh back from spending five weeks sat below Chamlang in the Hongu valley, Nepal with Nick Bullock. Unfortunately (again) the weather didn't play ball and we never got to have a proper good go at our objective for the expedition - the North Face of Chamlang, last year on Kyashar in the spring it was snow, this year it was the wind. 

We left Kathmandu on the 4th October along with Jack, Rob and Graham and made it to Lukla without incident where we met up with Gary, Tania and our amazing base camp team - Buddi and Santosh before the we all started the 8 day trek into our base camp in the Hongu Valley. The route takes you out of Lukla and up over the Zatrwa La pass before dropping down into the Hinku valley and following this up to Khare and over the Mera La to finally drop down into the Hongu Valley and out base camp. With Peak 41 (Jack and Rob) to one side, Chamlang to the other and Hunku (Garry and Graham) just up the valley it was a pretty 
perfect location. 

Heading through the beautiful village of Khote in the Hinku Valley
Arriving in Thangnak
Climbers heading up Mera Peak from the Mera La
Dropping down from the Mera La and into the Hongu Valley
Sunrise over base camp below Chamlang
Evening light on Chamlang
We spent the first couple of weeks acclimatizing around the Hongu, exploring the valley – which was stunning and scoping out the North Face and possible routes. After a few days of heading up to around 5700m we were keen to sleep high so headed up with Jack and Rob to the West Col on Baruntse to spend a night at just over 6000m with stunning views across to Makalu.

Gary and Rob scrambling up to 5700m on the ridge opposite the North Face of Chamlang

Gary descending
Spending a night at Baruntse base camp on the way up to the West Col
The South-West Face of Baruntse from its base camp on the way up to the West Col
Sunset on the massive West Face of Makalu from the West Col
With Chamlang at 7314m Nick and I were keen to get a bit more height before having a pop at the face so decided on getting as high as possible on the West Ridge which was also a possibility for our decent route. First climbed by a Japanese team in 1986 it took us a couple of days just to figure out the best way to get onto it, eventually finding a load of abandoned gear and guessing we were on the right track. We set off with 3 nights of food and figured we’d just go as high as possible without tiring ourselves out too much so headed back up the never ending scree slopes below the ridge for a third time. The start to the ridge is pretty horrible, very loose and not the most enjoyable but we slowly made our way up passing more old fixed ropes and even a ladder which we avoided by some easy scrambling a few meters to the side?! 

Trying to find a way through rubble onto the  West Ridge of Chamlang
Some of the old gear we found on the West Ridge - Santosh is now the proud owner of one of the ice axes from the first ascent! (photo - Nick Bullock)
building cairns on the West Ridge and finding more gear
Eventually off the loose rubble and cliffs of the West ridge, Nick heads up onto good snow heading up to the first summit on the ridge, Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse in the distance
On the West ridge of Chamlang, Mera Peak behind
Descending back down from the first summit on the ridge (photo - Nick Bullock)
Second bivi at just over 6000m on the West ridge
Having bivi’d just below the snow line at 5800m the next morning we headed up to the first summit on the ridge at around 6100m from where we’d intended to carry on. To cut a long story short the ridge ahead was a lot more crevassed and corniced than it had looked and would have taken a lot of time and effort to get across the horizontal section to get not that much higher than we were – very doable and an amazing objective but more involved than we wanted for acclimatisation! With that and the fact that the slopes coming down from the summit looked to be dangerously loaded which ruled it out as a decent option we decided to spend the rest of the day where we were hanging out in the afternoon sun, stay there that night and head back to BC the next day. 

Base camp at night
Rest days at base camp
Whilst we’d been up on the ridge everyone else had been trying their routes in their last few days at BC but unfortunately both teams had been shut down due to bad snow conditions so it was with some trepidation and not expecting much that after putting in a gear stash below the face we returned a few days later to have a go at it – and didn't get very far… 

 The face seemed to be in perfect condition – steep neve, one swing axe placements, the weather stable and we were feeling pretty acclimatized. But then we met the wind. Well we didn't so much as meet it as low on the face we were sheltered from it but started getting hammered by the spindrift it was creating and could see massive plumes of snow being blown out just above us where the angle changed and just where we’d be digging in for the night – it didn't exactly look inviting! 

Heading up the snow cone at the base of the North Face of Chamlang (photo - Nick Bullock)
Nick starting up the North face on good steep neve
Nick Heading up the lower section of the face
On the lower section of the North Face of Chamlang (photo - Nick Bullock)
Perfect neve on the North face (photo - Nick Bullock)
Beaten back - heading back after the first attempt
Having bailed from the first attempt we phoned home for a forecast from BC and didn't get the news we’d wanted – extremely cold and gale force winds. And the same again when we optimistically rang every few days for the next couple of weeks, by the time we left they were up over 100 kph blowing straight across the face and had rarely dropped below 70 kph at 6000m. 

Massive snow plumes being blown off Everest and Lhotse in the consistently strong winds
Keeping powered up at base camp
There were a couple of days when there was a lull in the wind and eager to get something done we used one of these to make the possible first ascent of a mountain called Hunku, 6119m, which had been Garry and Grahams objective and what we had originally planned to acclimatize on. It’s not the most attractive peak I’ve ever seen, in fact as you walk up the Hongu Valley under the East face it looks like choss, a mixture of scree and big loose buttresses. But half way along like an oasis in the middle of a desert there is a continuous broad couloir of snow leading straight up to the summit – the line Garry and Graham had tried but been turned round by deep, unconsolidated snow. Fuelled by the hope we’d eventually find the same neve we’d found on Chamlang we left base camp at 5am and after a 2.5 hour approach floundered through the deep unconsolidated snow for another hour to reach the first steepening and thankfully bomber neve. 
Hunku, 6119m - much nice looking mountain when seen from the North, the summit is actually at the far end of the horizontal ridge not the nice pointy bit at the nearest end!
The line we climbed on the East face which takes you straight to the summit - (Bullock/Houseman - 600m, D)
Heading up through very variable snow to the start of the couloir on the East face of Hunku - one minute you were walking on the surface and the next you were up to your chest... (photo - Nick Bullock)
The climbing wasn't atoll technical - just really fun and enjoyable (the way it should be!), a couple of short steeper sections lead to the final fluted section where we belayed one pitch of ice to avoid some bad snow before the final flutings lead straight up to the summit of Hunku. The views from the summit were simply stunning – the whole Khumbu to the West, Everest – Lhotse - Nuptse to the North, Baruntse – Makalu - Hongo Chuli to the East and Chamlang to the South. 

The couloir was around 600m – think a shorter/easier version of the Swiss route on the North Face of Les Courtes. We descended the route on ice threads and rock gear lower down and 16 hours after leaving were back in base camp with big smiles (mine bigger than Nicks as he’d managed to forget which boulder he’d hidden his trainers under, opps!) and sitting down to an evening meal of Momo’s and chips. It really was a great day out. 

One of the short perfect neve runnels through the steepening (photo - Nick Bullock)
Nick exiting the runnel
Nick coming up the upper part of the couloir
Nick coming up the upper part of the couloir
The one little ice pitch we climbed to by-pass some bad snow to the left
Climbing up the final flutings
(photo - Nick Bullock)
On the summit of the previously unclimbed Hunku, 6119m
Phoning home for another forecast we were given the same uninspiring news – extremely cold/gale force winds from the West for at least the next week – we decided to bail early having spent 34 days at base camp. 

 To be honest I felt a bit dejected and disappointed on the way out, thinking of it as another unsuccessful expedition to Nepal but then you have to kick yourself a bit and think – OK we didn't climb Chamlang or push ourselves and suffer as we’d expected but climbing to an untouched summit in the middle of some of the most spectacular scenery in the world – it’s pretty special. 

The final view looking across to Peak 41 from below the North face of Chamlang when we went up to collect our gear before leaving base camp the next day 
Crossing the Mera La and dropping back down into the tropical warmth of the Hinku we met up the the three Japanese climbers who had just made the first ascent of the South Pillar on Kyashar – one of the proudest line in the area and a route I’d been to try twice but bad luck had always intervened and I’d never made it onto the upper pillar. I was really psyched these three very talented but modest guys had bagged the line, it sounded amazing hearing their stories about the week they’d spent on the route (in warm temperatures and no wind… guess we were on the wrong hill!), definitely the ascent of the Autumn so far for me. 

The psyched Japanese team after making the first ascent of the South Pillar of Kyashar - good effort boys!
And finally - how to survive 5 weeks at a base camp....

A big thank you to everyone that made this expedition possible, the generous support and help was very much appreciated:

The Mount Everest Foundation
Chris Walker Memorial Trust
The Welsh Sports Association
The Alpine Club Climbing Fund
The North Face, Black Diamond, Scarpa, Tendon Ropes, Adidas Eyewear, Goal Zero and First Ascent

And finally Loben Expeditions for organising another perfectly run trip and providing the two best cooks in Nepal – Buddi and Santosh!

Sunday, 30 September 2012

Alaska Film and Nepal bound

Its been quite a while since I’ve written anything on here – mainly due to fact of not having done much since Alaska. Except for the odd day out on the local crags and a day over in the Lakes – I do love the Lakes – a bright sunny Saturday afternoon on what the guide book describes as ‘possibly the best E1 in the country’ and there’s not even another single person at the crag! Then an afternoon at Malham to remind me I definitely wasn’t rock fit this year just about sums up my summer of climbing, hey hoe psyched for next summer though. Apart from that it’s been getting out on the road bike as much as possible trying to get the legs in shape and busy at work. We were doing a lot with the Olympics this summer which has been pretty interesting and nice to be involved in if only in a small way. 

Three months ago after getting back from Alaska the Autumn trip to Nepal seemed ages away but suddenly I’m at Heathrow waiting for Nick and everyone else to arrive to fly out to Kathmandu! With Jack, Rob, Streaky, Garry and Tania joining us for the first few weeks at base camp and a stunning objective – Chamlang it should be a great trip and I’m really looking forward to getting back to Nepal.

Just before leaving I did eventually manage to finish off the little film I was putting together from our Alaska trip – it took a lot of effort to keep getting the cameras out on the route so quite pleased I eventually got it finished, hope you enjoy it!

A few pictures from the Olympics and the one climbing photos I’ve got from the summer:

Totalitarian on Raven Crag

Working in the stadium after the opening ceremony of the Paralympics

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Slovak Direct, South Face of Denali

After six weeks away Nick Bullock and I are slowly negotiating all the security, excess baggage and general airport hassle on our way back home.  Six weeks away for 84 hours of climbing, sometimes I wonder why at times!  But this time there’s no question that those 84 hours climbing the Slovak Direct on the nearly 3000m South Face of Denali, 6194m, were the most committed, intense and memorable climbing I have ever done.

We didn't climb it in a single push or enchain it with another Alaskan grade 6 test piece like some of the previous ascents but for us the atmosphere of the face, the remoteness, the size and the four days of bad weather lead to the most committed and out there route either of us had ever done.  Like all the previous ascensionist (ours was the 6th since the first in 1984) we had an amazing experience on the route which definitely didn't come easy and has left life long memories.

We left 14,000ft camp following the tracks of the two Toms up to the West Rib cut off and joined them for the decent down the Wickwire Ramp to the North East Fork and the start of the Cassin Ridge which the Tom’s then went on to climb over the next two days.  The slopes to cross over the Cassin were looking horrible in the early evening so we decided to bivi there and start early the next morning for the final approach down the original start to the Cassin into the East Fork and the base of the Slovak.   Taking longer than expected by the time we reached the East Fork and brewed up the sun had hit the face and the lower part was transformed into a patch work of wet streaks of melt water running everywhere so we spent the day dozing and waiting for the cooler temperatures of the night.

Midnight came and Big Bertha (the massive serac that hangs over part of the South Face) woke, exploding 1400m above us and had us scurrying down the glacier.  Next the serac above the starting couloir stirs, not again… we watch a small bit of debris come down and decide to get back in our bags for a couple of hours to let things settle. 

Eventually at 3am on the 24th we crossed the bergschrund and quickly soloed up the approach couloir to a big long traverse out onto the face proper.  The first day went quickly and after 9 hours of climbing up classic alpine ground and a few steep ice pitches we set up the tent for a luxurious bivi in the bergschrund of a hanging glacier. 

Fourteen and a half hours later (the bivi was a bit too comfy…) we left and started the meat of the route.  From the top right of the hanging glacier ice goulettes and mixed steps lead up a depression in the face to the base of a clean completely vertical big wall, the situation and atmosphere of the face totally out there.  Breaking out right a huge iced up corner stretches for 140m through some of the wildest ground either of us had have ever climbed in the mountains, the commitment and size of the face, the quality and steepness of the climbing all made for an awe inspiring situation.
The weather hadn’t been too bad on the previous day, a little bit of snow but nothing too worrying but throughout the morning it had gradually deteriorated.  My block finished and Nick lead up the final pitch of the corner getting hammered by spindrift being whipped up by strong winds above.  Miraculously the sun came out for the crux rock wall and a quick paper, rock, scissors decided who was going to have it, Nick had a proper good effort at freeing it before lack of gear, pressure of time and a distinct phobia of broken bones half way up a 3000m face forced him to lower off, so close!  Returning to Nicks high point with a replenished rack from the lower section, I aided the last few steep meters of climbing and up the final easier section (the way two of the previous ascents had taken).  A couple more pitches and we ended up on the ice slopes with Big Bertha looming way out to the right, hour seventeen on the go and back to strong winds and snow, we simlu climbed up ice slopes and easy mixed ground for a few hundred meters to the final technical pitch of the Slovak Direct.

This should have been a straight forward 70m pitch up a beautiful ice runnel and a great way to finish off the climbing before joining the Cassin.  As it was I’ve never had to dig as deep, well into hour twenty something and feeling the strain what would normally take 15 min of enjoyable climbing lasted an hour and a half, most of it spent trying to hold on in the constant spindrift pouring down, definitely ‘type 2’ fun! 

The Slovak was over and 27 hours after leaving our last bivi we’d joined the Cassin.  Using the tent as a bivi sack, too scared to try and put the poles in in the wind we dozed and melted snow before continuing up the final 3500ft of Cassin Ridge aiming for the summit that day.

Deep fresh snow slowed us even more than our tired bodies and the ridge seemed to go on for ever.  At 18,500ft we were forced to put the tent up in winds too strong to continue climbing in.  Eventually sixteen hours later the weather seemed to be clearing and we made a mad dash, well more a very tired and slow trudge up the final 1800ft to the summit, being treated to clear skies, sun and a summit to ourselves at 16.30 on the 27th.
The decent down the West Buttress went fine and we were kindly taken in by a guided group at the 17,00ft camp for some food and drinks before continuing down to 14,000ft camp later that evening.  Six days out, four on the route and the most fulfilling, committing and totally absorbing experience in the mountains I have ever had. 

The nearly 3000m South Face of Denali with the line of the Slovak Direct and our bivis marked

Nick soloing up the access couloir on the first day
Nick soloing up the access couloir on the first day

Following Nick on the first short pitch to get across some dry slabs (photo - Nick Bullock)
Approaching the first steep ice pitch after a long traverse out right (photo – Nick Bullock)

Nick on the first steep pitch of the route, one of the crux pitches 

Following the first ice pitch (photo – Nick Bullock)

Starting up a beautiful ice runnel (photo – Nick Bullock)
Easier ground above the two ice pitches on day 1
A nice comfy bivi under the bergschrund of the hanging glacier
Start of day 2 traversing across the hanging glacier

Soloing up the ice gully to the start of the technical climbing on day 2 (photo – Nick Bullock)

Nick heading up into a sea of granite

One of the many pitches of classic alpine ice goulettes (photo – Nick Bullock)

Nicks first block over and I start my first block of the day (photo – Nick Bullock)

Heading up towards the ice corner, this pitch lead to a short snow field below the huge vertical wall, the ice corner visible above started from this and is around 140m long (photo – Nick Bullock)

The first steep pitch of the corner (photo – Nick Bullock)

Battling through snow in the corner, I timed finishing my block perfectly with the start of the spindrift ;-) (photo – Nick Bullock)

Nick after seconding the first pitch of the steep corner and getting acquainted with the spindrift

Nick on the classic steep ice pitch of the corner, with the big granite wall on his left looking very Scottish!

Finishing up a steep blocky mixed gully at the top of the corner.  It had looked like we’d have to climb more wild overhanging ice to exit the corner until this gully not visible from below came into view. (photo – Nick Bullock)

A short snow field lead up to the steep rock crux pitch with the line marked, the traverse above is hidden from view (photo – Nick Bullock)

Nick coming up to the rock crux pitch

Nick giving 110% effort to try free the line we took

On the long traverse pitch above the rock band (photo – Nick Bullock)

A much needed bivi and brew stop for about six hours once we’d joined the Cassin Ridge, we couldn’t get the tent up properly and the weather had been really bad for a while, this is the only photo we have for about a 24 hour period, getting the camera out wasn’t a priority! (photo – Nick Bullock)

Staring up the couloir that by passes the 3rd rock band of the Cassin

Somewhere on the Cassin enjoying the deep snow

After the force sixteen hour bivi in the wind we got a break in the weather and made a tired trudge under blue skies to the summit (photo – Nick Bullock)

Nick coming up the top part of the Cassin

Looking pretty tired on Kahiltna Horn just below the summit

Nick on the final ridge from Kahiltna Horn to the summit
Descending down the ‘autobahn’ to 17,000ft camp and then onto 14,000ft camp (photo – Nick Bullock)