Ado About Nuptse
Published in Rock & Ice
Phakding, Nepal, April 9th; rain hammers straight down, some of the drops hit with the mass of marbles and hurt like hail. In Chamonix they would say that it is raining like a cow pissing on a flat rock. Sat around a hand planed and joined table in our teahouse my five team-mates chuckle and smile and slurp down more milk tea. Add our cook, Prakash (pronounced like: carcrash), and we are the Slo-Can/Am (Slovenian/Canadian/American) Nuptse South Face Expedition 2002 . I prefer to think of us phonetically with an emphasis on the Slow. Across from me sits our esteemed leader, Steve House. Steve is 31 and married to the beautiful Anne, they live in a trailer that they call the aluminum love tube in Mazama, Washington. They share the tube with a perfect 60lb snowball of a dog named Toko. Steve has taken to referring to himself as our steamed rather than esteemed leader, You know, kinda like the mo-mos, I like to think of myself as a Sherpa dumpling. I call Steve the Farmboy because he looks like he should be chewing on a stalk of straw and slicing into his mom s fresh apple pie. In my opinion Steve is the best alpinist in North America. Nuptse will be his fourth trip to the Himalaya and Karakorum and it is a trip that he had to fight for as both his original partners dropped out on him last year. I m going even if I have to go by myself. , he stated to me early in the winter. Now you don t have to go and do that , I replied I m keen, let s just go climb it.
Me, 43 years old, my eleventh trip to the high Asian mountains in 19 years and I have all the grey hair to prove it. I am fully one generation removed from the next oldest member and two from our youngest. Just last summer, at a buddie s wedding, in my hometown of Canmore, Alberta, someone I didn t know summed up my appearance: white shirt, bolo tie and cowboy hat - You look like a young Colonel Sanders . I am the old man of the expedition. 36 year old Marko Prezelj could easily pass for a formula one driver as there is something very european about his square and strong face and precisely trimmed widow s peak, a polish that few north americans possess. And charmingly, like many eastern europeans, his command of english falls short of the coy niceties that we wrap our language in and much of his speech is delivered in deep Schwartzenegger like commands: NO, WE MUST GO NOW. WE GO NOW! Which is cool because I like being told what to do, saves me making decisions. Marko lives in Kamnik, the Leavenworth of Slovenia, with his wife Katja and sons Tim, eight, and Bor, two. Many climbers talk of climbing alpine style in the Himalaya. Marko Prezelj has climbed five 6000 meter Himalaya peaks in alpine style and seven of seven thousanders including the virgin main summit of Melungtse (7181m) via the east face, the virgin summit of Yebokangal Ri (7332m), the first ascent of the north face of Gyachung Kang (7952m), and the second ascent of the Golden Pillar of Spantik (7027m). In 1991 Marko and his frequent partner, Andrej Stremfelj, where awarded the inagural Piolet d Or for their five day alpine style ascent of a new route to the summit of Kangchenjunga South (8476m). Further, what must be acknowledged is that the above are all technical ascents true to the alpine ideal of taking on the greatest glaciated peaks on earth by their steepest flanks ... there is no walking here. Like me Nuptse is Marko s eleventh trip to Asia. Stephen Koch, 33, from Jackson Wyoming is probably best known for having snowboarded six of the Seven Summits (Stephen has yet to board the big E and told me that so far Kilamonjaro had been the toughest: real bony , read -three foot high bare ice penitenties). Handsome as a Hollywood leading man Stephen became the big guy because at 185 lbs he had 10 on me, 20 on Steve and 40 on Marko. Climbing-wise Stephen and Marko had ripped up the Alaska Range the year before establishing Luna a new line on the Mini Moonflower (M6, A0), then attempting the Moonflower itself -a 25hr single push to the top of the buttress, and crowning that with a 43hr single push first ascent of Light Traveler, an M7+ cruxed route up the 10,000 South Face of Mt McKinley ... it don t get much better than that. Stephen had been to the Himalaya once before as a member of a siege of Lhotse s west slopes.
My wife Catherine joined us as base camp librarian and intellectual support team. She felt that she didn t need to climb on the south face of Nuptse and bought 27 books to base camp and eventually read them all. Her first effort at stirring the nascent intellect in we boys was to assign us the task of composing a haiku poem every day (ok, so they were bastard haikus). Mine from Phakding:
Namche Bazaar, 4:36am, April 11: the crack of small arms fire jerks me awake, sounds like a dozen ladyfinger firecrackers snapping off in series, then the reports become much more throaty. The deep and slow baritone blaps of a big caliber. I d bloody well hate to die in a political fight that had nothing to do with me. More immediately I m afraid of the windows in our room being blown in and I nest Catherine and I on the concrete floor away from the glass. In the morning we learn that the army enforces the 7pm curfew by firing on anything that moves on a trail and could be a Maoist insurgent. So far they ve killed one yak. At breakfast Steve and Marko admit that they slept right through the whole thing.
The next day I hobble into Pangboche feverish and butt-sick. The others play chess and drink beer while I lay in my bag and shiver and softly groan. Early evening I mistake the waning sun for the rising moon. My guts percolate and contract around themselves in pain and I know that it is time to self medicate. So much of being at altitude is about fighting gastrointestinal parasites and chest infections. You play doctor on yourself and your partners and there is a smug clandestine authority to be enjoyed in that. I choose three days of antibiotics and a bowel immobilizer and sweat myself to sleep.
One yak pinish says our teenage herder, Dingboche and he doesn t speak much more english than that. Problem is that our tents are on that yak and everyone, save Catherine and I, are two hours ahead at our basecamp site with the faster moving porters. Steve and I orchestrate a radio conversation between our young herder and Prakash, neither of whom have ever spoken on a radio before: Steve and I time the bellowing of their lungs with anticipated sentence breaks and hit the push to talk button as they SCREAM! into the radio it being surley nothing more than a megaphone in disguise. A solution emerges: Prakash runs down to herd our six yaks while the young fellow goes double time to retrieve our tents from pinished yak.
Glaciated golden granite crowned with iron black rock and drapped in long crenelated ridges of firn and neve , the incredible south wall carves into the sky for four miles from the western summit of Nuptse (25, 410ft) to the main summit of Lhotse (27,890ft). It is a staggering sight to behold, even for a jaded old alpinist like me and I sit on a rock to avoid falling to my knees. Averaging 7000ft of relief at Nuptse the wall scrapes to 10,000 on the vertical tombstone black pinnacles of Lhotse. Many mornings we are to hear the jetstream screaming up there, sunrise revealing long skeletal white clouds being torn away and tattered to cerement to be lost in thin air. Surprisingly we spend little time discussing lines because the line that we want is obvious. A mixed gulley skirting the right edge of a buttress that lies to the west of the famed South Pillar . Steve put this trip together on the dream of a single push and to accomplish that we need fast and true alpine terrain, wall leads that consume four hours are out, the South Pillar is out.
April 14, we set up our base camp at 17,000 ft in a meadow footing the eastern slopes of Chukkung Tse and just west of the Lhotse Nup glacier. I remember why I haven t played chess in twenty years. To beat Marko I have to concentrate like I m landing the lunar module ... for three hours! My feet chill then numb as I huddle down to stare a hole into the board inside our cook tent. It is incredible. He is like a computer. Marko states, but the play makes my head hurt and I soon go back to moving impulsively and losing. Outside an arthurian mist submerges the valley, walking to my tent I feel like I m under 100 fathoms of cold grey water.
NO! WE MUST US WHITE ROCKS TO BUILD THE CAIRNS! Marko commands, then adds OTHERWISE WE WILL NEVER SEE THEM .... really . I realize that he has added the really as an afterthought to the Farmboy, Catherine, Stephen and I, having spent two weeks around us Marko is acculturating. But he is right because we are crossing the Lhotse Nup glacier to scramble up peak 5775 and it will most likely white out for our return. I drop the black rock, it crunches into the gravel and ice at my feet. I look for a white one.
Three days later, April 19, Steve, Marko, Stephen and I walk out of BC and climb towards the 61 British route. We ve taken to calling it the Bonnington route because Sir Chris was a member of the team that made the first ascent. Fact is that Chris summited a day after P. Davis and Tashi ticked the FA, Why don t we call it the Tashi route? I ask. Our plan is to acclimatize on the 61 route and use it for our descent. By 1pm we are at 6000m having soloed a kilometer of insecure sideways crab crawling over funk layerings of crust and crud and sugar stitched together with some ice and good neve and spikes of splitter granite. Greedy deathfalls of a thousand feet plus yawn underfoot and I absolutely hate the amount of force I need to apply to gain any security. Swinging and kicking hard requires oxygen and there is about half as much available here as there is at sea level and my lungs heave and my heart pounds and my brain feels like it is swaddled in cotton batten. Reflexes slow, acuity sinks and the risk of falling escalates. Do I envy Marko? balanced over his frontpoints with the lightness of piolet panne moving in Terray s fourth dimension , dancing on the impossible with Lachenal s elan ... I have been in that place, now I swing again and thump my axe deep into the mountain and fight for security. We descend to BC by 4pm.
Four days later we go back to the 61 with the plan of spending several nights. Stephen and I climb together because like the Farmboy and I he and Marko have been a team but never he and I nor Farmy and Marko. Stephen and I use the rope a lot. Marko and Steve solo and soon outdistance us and we do not see them again that day and that is a screw-up. At 4pm Stephen and I flop onto a spacious ledge at 6100m and there is a penciled note skewered onto a bamboo wand:
Stephen and I aren t going any farther, we pitch our micro tent and he snores while I cook. Later we wriggle into our one bag sleeping system which saves the weight of one sleeping bag and promotes male bonding. We learn to roll in synch like a married couple and sleep so warm that spooning isn t necessary. Actually I only get about an hour because my psyche is crashing, I don t know if I want to do this anymore ... risk so much, I am so absolutely aware of the dozens of ways that I could die up here.
Morning, I am poor company. Most of my energy spent on shoring up the
oppressive feeling of dread that is bearing down on me. Stephen tries to engage
me in friendly talk, but I just can t shoot the shit. I need to deal with the
dread and prepare to climb.
Stephen wants to catch the boys and I belay him out to where he sees that it is not soloing ground (even Marko and Steve are using the rope) and realizes that to try to climb up to them would be foolhardy. Disappointed, he retreats to me -the sea anchor- and we descend to our camp where I cook up a storm for the young man.
Prakash s haiku:
Dawn, everything changes: wind from the south on Makalu, six millibars of pressure gone, downvalley a brooding black wall advancing. Look man, lenticular clouds over Ama Dablam and Kangtega Stephen points, I think that we should get the hell outta here. We retreat through hail and wind and, eventually, the white reaper: lightning. A window opens through the clouds and we see Marko and Steve atop a white sweep of glacier and they are going higher and I know that Stephen wants to be up there with them as much as I do not. We walk into camp at 3pm, snow piles up. Steve and Marko stride in from the dark at seven having made it to 6600m. Their eyes are electric, they toast their effort with beer and it feels like we have become two teams. The next day we plan to have Steve and Marko descend to rest for an attempt while Stephen and I return to the 61 and acclimatize more. Catherine opts to go down for a change of scenery and because she s fatigued on worrying about me, I just want you boys to finish with this so we can go home. Weather and butt-sickness (I swear it was the canned Vienna cocktail sausages) keep Stephen and I down for six days and he worries about being out of synch with Marko and Steve. We still have three weeks to make an attempt. I say, Anything can happen my man.
And it does, on the day we climb to 6600m Stephen tests a coffin sized ice tongue for stability by banging it with his axe, it doesn t move so he crouches below it to get at the good ice to anchor. Pounding in his axes to back up a screw the coffin shears and falls for twelve inches onto his back ... it weighs 500lbs, it compresses Stephen and he feels, and hears, his MCL tear, then he has to shuck the thing off his back. It s over for him and he knows and accepts it, one week later he leaves BC with his friend, Saxon (who has come to visit), and they head of for the beaches of Thailand.
Catherine and I descend to Pangboche (13,000ft) where I rest for two nights. Back at BC Marko, Steve and I agree that our route will not go in a single push, too long, too high, too hard; and the weather just hasn't been right: regular snowfalls and high winds. Interestingly it its Marko who declares that a single push is too risky, NO, NOT FOR ME ON THIS ROUTE! We pack for four days then wait on the weather and conditions for six. May 15, 3:30am, I leave BC behind Marko and Steve and I am psyched to be going. We climb 1000 meters of fine mixed ground that day and Steve and Marko lead like so few in the world can. Farmboy, of course, gets the M-7 crux and deals with it over two hours, by far the longest lead of the route. I am totally blown away watching Marko link pitches of awkward, snow choked, 5.8 rock, WI 3 -running with water because it is too hot- and M-5 all with his pack on! The amount of power delivered by his slight 5 9 , 145lbs chassis just doesn t add up. Terray called what I am witnessing over-mastery and like him I know that having past forty I am just not there anymore. Dusk, WE CAN NOT BIVY THERE. WE MUST GO ON! Marko declares. But you don t have as much experience bivoacing as me. I ll get us a bivy here, just you watch me Marko Prezelj.
It s true , adds Steve, no one has more experience bivying than Bubba. I take that as a strange form of compliment from a man who I actually tell that I love, right there and then (and reading that shouldn t make you -us-uncomfortable), and while Steve belays I excavate and construct and get us our bivy. And then I contribute what I can to this team ... I cook. Heat, it builds the next day and we are soon climbing inside the greenhouse . At 6200 meters we take off the rope and slog onto shallower glaciated slopes. I feel like I am in a dry sauna wearing a snowmobile suit, heat presses into the open pores of my face like a stamp into melted red sealing wax. Underfoot the snow grabs at our boots like wet sand. By 6pm we re all of 500 meters higher. The 17th is colder, the snow stays dry and firm. Two windslabs, I m thankful to be the third one to cross. Late afternoon Steve plows to platform in a shrund at 7200 meters. The small convex slope is all of sixty feet but I wonder if I am going to make it. Anomalously, there is heat here and it is stifling, I wilt like a fern before a blowtorch, wonder what my ignition point is. I dig and set up camp while Marko and Steve climb higher to fix our ropes for the morning.
The new day is abysmal, snow, wind, cold. We submit to waiting a day in hopes of better weather knowing that if we are to summit that it will have to be the next day, we ve run out of time.
I m very surprised to hear you say that. Steve says when I admit to he and Marko that I think that I ll stay here in support: My heart s just not into it. I say that I ll see how I feel at 3am when our watches go off, yet I know that it is true. I m done with the hassle of being over 7000 meters, of feeling like I m being run over by a truck all the time. Thinking back on the three times that I ve climbed over 8000 meters in alpine style, on Everest and K-2, I conclude that any one who tells you that they ve peered into the clear and unslurried pool of their soul up there is a cad and a huckster and a bore, and -to quote Hunter S Thompson: should have their teeth gouged out with a chisel .
The morning is frost bite cold, wind rips across the black rock above us, sounds like tearing sailcloth. We waffle for a bit then make the only decision, Expedition pinish says our steamed leader.
We descend all the way to BC, largely on Marko s insistence and I m annoyed at push-pushness of it and by Marko s continued minamalism. Why not leave two screws? We re on the way down for christ s sake. I think, then realize that it is the fatigue talking. At 9pm we rendezvous with Prakash and Catherine who have come up to meet us. I hug and kiss and am loving my wife, we slurp down milk tea. It does indeed feel good to be off the mountain and stumbling into BC an hour later ... thank you Marko.
We didn t make any mistakes. sums-up Marko the next day, The weather was upside down, or the mountain: we needed the warmth on the black rock and the cold on the mixed ground. We got it upside down.
The next day we walked away from Nuptse and I turned my back on the seven and eight thousanders.
Na teh straneh si lahko preberete tudi moje poročilo s te odprave (op. Marka Prezelja).