Upcoming Schedule July-Dec 2014:
Totals Distance 617 miles + Total Elevation 94,662ft = Ultra Hurt
The view from my seat…
Earlier this year Ueli Steck and I exchanged a number of emails hatching plans to attempt a bold line directly up the south face of Annapurna I. Both of us had attempted Annapurna by the south face twice before -on separate expeditions- for me the first in 2006 with a strong Polish/Slovak team, and then again in 2008 with a small international group including Inaki Ochoa before he died tragically near 7500m. While Ueli’s prior attempts were both made on the south face proper, mine took place on indirect variations near its eastern flank- perhaps more correctly the east ridge. Having spent two prior seasons on the east ridge, I knew that despite its somewhat complex approach and high exposure to avalanche danger, climbing Annapurna by the east ridge was well within my personal climbing limitations, and would be an excellent alternative for Ueli and I in 2013 if the direct line up the south face was not feasible. I had some idea what the south face direct was like, and was certainly willing to give it look- especially with Ueli as a partner. Still, I knew that any route up the central section of the face would be a tough undertaking.
On September 20th, filmmaker Jonah Matthewson and I finally arrived in Pokhara, Nepal after 4 long days of traveling from Bishop, California. Ueli warmly greeted us in the Hotel Barahi lobby, where we also met the photographer-dynamic-duo Dan and Janine Patitucci- who would also accompany us on the expedition. I met Dan and Janine some years prior when they lived in Bishop before moving to Switzerland, and it was great to see Ueli again since the last time we partnered on our 2011 Shishapangma/Cho Oyu/Everest expedition.
It was great to be back in the Annapurna sanctuary again even though the memories and reminders of those tragic days in 2008 surrounding Inaki’s rescue attempt and death were ever present. After arriving in base camp on the 22nd of Sept, I immediately came down with the proverbial Nepali chest infection that plagues me literally every time I arrive in Nepal. Wanting to heal up a bit before going higher, Ueli set off alone to find a good spot for advanced base camp at the foot of the wall, while I recovered below. On Sept 26th I was finally feeling better and made the climb up to ABC with Jonah and Ueli. After a few days acclimatizing there at 5000m, Ueli and I decided to venture onto the face and try to establish Camp 1. The two of us retraced the route that Ueli had flagged up the glacier to the bottom of the wall, climbed a short pitched of vertical rock, and continued climbing up the right side of a subtle rock spur splitting the central face. In a few hours we discovered a decent ledge perched atop an unlikely rock outcropping near 6100m, and immediately went to work hacking out a small platform to pitch our tent. Strewn along the spur we found pieces of old, manky, 11mm static rope, and used a few lengths to anchor the tent in place.
Ueli and I spent two nights acclimatizing at Camp 1, and we watched out the tent door as the sea of clouds engulfed the entire sanctuary below- all the while listening to the disturbing sound of rocks careening down the face above. I have to admit that observing the rockfall during those 2 days was quite intimidating- if not downright scary- even though our camp was safely perched on the spur where few rocks could reach us. I felt that the extremely mild temperatures would have to drop significantly for the face to solidify into safer condition.
The second morning we took down the tent, stashed some gear, and down-climbed the lower face to the glacier. After securing our food and supplies at ABC, we descended the grassy slopes to the moraine and made the long trek back to base camp. There we enjoyed a few days rest while waiting for another favorable weather window. In base camp Ueli and I spoke about the strategy of our summit push, and agreed that in order to cover the huge vertical distance in the shortest time possible we would have to climb quickly and unroped up most of the lower face to the bottom of the rock buttress- which we guessed was around 7300m. After considering this for a few days, I knew that climbing unroped up and down that amount of terrain, at that altitude and difficulty, would be pushing the limits of my personal ability, and told Ueli how I felt. We talked about my concerns and Ueli was gracious but encouraging, asking if I’d have one more look at the face before making any decisions- to which I agreed. It was really cool to be able to communicate honestly about such things, as friends do.
Oct 6th we climbed back up to ABC, along with Dan, Janine, and Jonah, with the intention of giving the face another try during a short weather window. We woke up early the morning of Oct 8th, packed up our gear, and climbed quickly to the bergshrund at the foot of the face. Dan and Jonah accompanied us up the glacier, and as we waited for them to reach our stance Ueli and I had another discussion about things. Looking up the face from the bergshrund I reiterated my hesitancy to solo the terrain above Camp 1. Ueli then got that look in his eye- the one I’ve become all too familiar with having been on 3 other 8000 meter expeditions with him. It was time, and he was going for it- alone. I gave him some of my food, an extra bottle of water, and the 5mm x 60m rope I was carrying. He packed up the extra gear, smiled, and turned toward the face, climbing up the snow cone toward the vertical rock step: “See you, ah?”
The three of us then backed away from the lower face toward the edge of the debris fields to gain a safer stance, where I insisted we wait until Ueli reached Camp 1. We all took pictures and video of Ueli climbing up the lower wall, and in an hour and a half or so he crested the rock spur, traversing left at the height of Camp 1. Once I knew he had safely reached our stash of gear and the tent platform, Dan, Jonah, and I descended the glacier back to ABC.
By the time we arrived at ABC Ueli had already left Camp 1 and reached the second rock band on the face- climbing very fast- and although just a tiny spec on the wall we could clearly see him with the naked eye. I unpacked my gear and leaned my sleeping pad against a rock, sitting down with a small stash of food, some tea, and my camera, to watch the action on the face above. All day we watched as Ueli ascended the toward the main buttress headwall. By late afternoon he neared the bottom of the headwall, but the summit winds had picked up dramatically and spindrift avalanches began streaming down the face everywhere. We could clearly see Ueli through the 500mm lens, and Jonah was able to periodically capture short video clips through breaks in the clouds. Through the big lens we watched as the avalanches grew larger in size and frequency, spilling down all over the face from above, and for the first time my anxiety increased for Ueli’s safety. I knew that if the winds remained as they were near the summit- perhaps 70-80 km/h or more- there was no way he would be able to reach the top.
Just before the sun set behind the Fang we watched as Ueli gained the headwall and disappeared into the rocks just right of the bottom of the central “Lafaille” couloir. A few minutes later he reappeared again and began down-climbing to a small band of ice features, descending around 50-100 vertical meters. He then stopped, and through the lens we could clearly see him hacking at the face with his tools. I explained to Dan and Jonah that in 2008 we had found a crevasse at 7000m on our route near the eastern flank of face, and after a little exploring discovered it widened below into a room large enough for three tents to be pitched- despite the steep angle of the external face. Once in the crevasse we were completely safe from avalanches and away from falling spindrift. I presumed Ueli had found something similar and was widening the entrance hole to get inside. (Turns out, I was correct.)
Darkness fell on the wall, and after losing sight of Ueli I suggested that he had either hunkered down for the night to descend in the morning, or had found a safe place to wait out the spindrift avalanches caused by the summit winds before continuing up. We ate dinner, retreated to our tents, and fell asleep as clouds shrouded the face.
I woke up a few times during the night- the first around midnight- and peered out of my tent at the face above. In the darkness I could see the clouds had lifted and the summit wind banners were much smaller- and the blowing snow had declined dramatically. I also noted that temperatures were significantly colder than our prior trip up the face. I felt much better about Ueli’s safety and fell back asleep.
The next morning I awoke just after first light to the sound of activity outside the tent, hearing Tengi’s voice (who had come up from base camp the day before) and Dan discussing if they could see Ueli. I heard them say they could see him down-climbing, so I immediately got dressed and exited the tent. Once my eyes adjusted to the brightness of the morning I was able to see him descending the open ice and snowfield below the headwall, and I felt the last of the lingering nerves and heaviness lift from my chest. The skies above were clear and blue, and there were no signs of blowing snow or wind banners. Dan, Tengi, and I quickly packed some food, drinks, and our cameras, and headed up the glacier toward the face. A few hours later, just as we approached the halfway point on the lower glacier, I caught an orange flash of color around a corner, and a few seconds after saw Ueli appear on a serac platform just above me. He dropped down to my stance and immediately gasped, “We can go home now. Summit.” I laughed loudly as we did the manly-hug-back-pounding thing, then I uttered a few friendly expletives and congratulated him for such an incredible achievement. I took out my camera and shot as much video as I could (stay tuned- we have a lot of great video from the expedition) while he sat in the snow drinking a Coke, munching on food, and sharing details about the climb. It was a very cool moment, and I couldn’t have been more proud for Ueli.
I want to apologize for not sending out any dispatches from the expedition, but it was part of our joint strategy to remain focused on the task at hand and to keep the expedition streamlined, simple, and somewhat understated. Despite not climbing above 6100m myself (or attempting our alternate route) it was very cool to have witnessed Ueli’s climb, and I feel quite content with the decision I made regarding my own personal limitations. I’m thrilled for Ueli and for what he was able to accomplish, and comfortably embrace the fact that climbing Annapurna in the same manner he did is simply beyond my ability. Still, Annapurna will remain in place, magnificent, elusive, and savage, and perhaps on another occasion I will once again have the chance to lock horns with her.
Success climbing the highest mountains is not found by achieving the summit, but in the stories told by those who encounter a certain confrontation within themselves found only under the shadow of the summits. What matters most is what we carry down with us, and the changes forged within. If we return unchanged or hide away our stories the mountains still remain as they are: rock, snow, ice, cold, and disregard toward those who would conquer.
As for me, the story of Annapurna continues…
Had a nice ride to the summit of Pikes Peak (14,114ft, 4302m) from my parents house. When someone told me the road was open to the top I took a shot at it immediately- but their beta that the road averages 4.5% grade was waaaay off. My Garmin Edge 810 was reading most of the upper road at +9% grade. Fun ride- but could be even better with a compact chainring- at least judging from the all the dried sweat drops on my handlebars…
Check it out below on Garmin Connect:
I’ve been visiting my parents in Colorado Springs and captured a few images of the Black Forest Fire from their deck. Here is one of my favorites: (Click a few times for full screen- it’s worth it)
It seems that 5 weeks of chest infection and the constant struggle for physical and emotional health has taken it’s toll. I did finally get on the mountain and up near Makalu La for an acclimatization session, but when I returned to base camp my illness did not abate. After learning of Alexei’s death on Everest, well, as I wrote to a friend, the human heart can only take so much, and my attempt for the summit this year on Makalu would not materialize.
Climbing 8000 meter mountains requires a tremendous amount of time, preparation, and commitment, and my 2013 Makalu expedition was no exception. In the past, leaving mountains where I did not reach the summit, I’ve often felt extremely disappointed and discouraged, departing base camp feeling entirely defeated with tail tucked between my legs. But on Makalu in 2013, my sense is that I did as much as possible to recover from my extended illness and accrued weakness- and I found the terrible news of Alexei did as much to deflate my motivation as my illness did my energy stores.
Yet aside from the extreme sense of loss over Alexei, I felt almost matter-of-fact when leaving Makalu, believing in my heart that I did as much as possible to hang in there, fighting for weeks on end for a chance at the summit- and I did not fight alone. I received many notes and letters of encouragement, and each of these words helped me to continue, assuaging my sometimes overwhelming sense of loneliness and reminding me that many people support and follow my expeditions. To simply say thank you to all my supporters and followers feels like such a small gesture when compared to the tremendous strength I draw from your thoughts, prayers, and comments. So perhaps I’ll say it another way: I simply could not do this without you behind me.
Many events have transpired since my last dispatch, but the most important at hand is the death of my friend and climbing partner Alexei Bolotov yesterday. I feel that far more appropriate words can be written about Alexei than I am capable of right now- my fingers simply hover over the keyboard with tears and disbelief- but I will share with you some great memories of Alexei in the future. For now, sadness reigns in my heart over his loss, and my thoughts are with his wife, family, friends, and also with Denis Urubko.
I’ve asked my family to post a few pictures of us together, and you can find more images of Alexei in the Annapurna 2008 and Gasherbrum I 2010 image galleries on this website.
(Click on pictures to enlarge)
When all the training has been logged, when all the gear and food and equipment have been gathered, when you’ve said goodbye to your family and friends, get on the plane, travel for days through a foreign culture, you finally get to the mountain. There you unpack your gear, spend a few sleepless nights acclimatizing to 19,000ft, eat questionable food, and crap over a hole in the rocks with the wind blowing stinky, damp, nylon tent material against your face at a time when both hands are generally preoccupied with other tasks. It’s only then, after all that, that finally you are ready…ready to start the hard part: the actual climbing.
(Click on images to enlarge)
Then, just as you gather all the mental, physical, and emotional strength you’ve reserved for your first day on the mountain, you suddenly feel a sting in the back of your throat, which progresses overnight into a full raw burn, then settles into your lungs until you wake up the third morning coughing up handfuls of what looks like chewed green peas.
It’s then that you realize that all your training, preparation, and intentions to do something really grand, have all come crashing to terra firma because of a brainless, infinitesimally small microorganism, with nasty intentions more willful and powerful than your own. The viral irony.
So, after descending from base camp and spending 4 nights at a remote enclave called Yanglekharka at 13,000ft, my big, strong, powerful and fully-in-control mind and body has finally whipped that microorganism into shape, expelling it, along with 10 pounds of body weight, back into the local ecosystem. Of course, by now I’m sure the same virus has already returned to base camp via some porter’s shoe, and will greet me- with tongue sticking out- at my un-triumphant return tomorrow, having reclaimed its home on stinky, damp, nylon tent material, awaiting high fiber meals and breezy days.
Mountain Lesson #1259: Control is illusory.
Proof: A tiny virus is stronger than you.
After the crazy flight to Lukla I grabbed my bags and headed to the uniquely named Himalayan Hotel. Inside, the rooms and accommodations were more than comfortable, and the dining hall was surprisingly large with beautiful decorations and gabled ceilings. I spent the day sending emails and utilizing the last wifi I’d see for a while- and playing with a Tibetan dog outside who I aptly named Spaz. Every time I came within 20 feet of the mutt, he’d starting whirling in circles and bucking like a crazed bronco, flopping his moppy locks all around and spraying everywhere dirt, slobber, and the occasional flying insect-thingy. I thereby dubbed him Spaz the Rock Star of Lukla, and will petition that he become the official greeter to help transition all the wide-eyed, cotton sucking, tourists exiting the urine planes. Imagine…you get off THAT airplane ride and right in your face- Spaz…….. Perfect.
(Click on pictures to enlarge)
The next morning I woke up around 5am, packed my things and hauled my bags across the courtyard to the airstrip for the helicopter ride to base camp. Along the way I came across one of the pilots who mentioned it would likely be too cloudy to fly, so I stashed my bags in the Fishtail Air supply hut and headed back to the hotel. (Did I just write Air Supply hut? Maybe they can jam with Spaz.) Anyway, after breakfast I decided a run was in order, so I changed into my training gear and headed up the trail toward Mera base camp. It’s great running on trails in the Himalayas because nearly everyone you pass- locals, trekkers, climbers, porters, yaks- all give you the same, blank, “Why in tarnation are you running up here?” look. As I ran past a crowd of gawking trekkers standing near a lodge, I breathlessly quipped, “Are the police still behind me?” As I rounded the next corner through the trees I heard a yell in thick German accent, “Stop running! No one is there!” Sometimes I can’t help myself.
The next morning I once again packed up and headed toward the helicopter pad, pulled my things out of the storage hut, and waited for things to get fired up. Soon both I and my bags were piled into the rear seat of the helicopter and just before lift-off the pilot turned and asked me if I would mind heading straight over the mountains instead of going around them. Of course, I agreed.
Weaving through gaps in the high Himalaya- with Everest and Ama Dablam and Lhotse soaring through the clouds- this was one exciting and beautiful ride. After 40 minutes or so, the pilot pointed into a valley and initiated a cool little death-spiral maneuver to lose altitude. Near a small lake he buzzed a group of tents at mach speed, banked hard right in a 180 degree turn, and then set us down on a flat spot outside camp. I opened the door, threw my bags out, took a few pictures, and then watched as the helicopter took off down the valley. I’m quite certain the grin on my face went from ear to ear.
Makalu base camp is a stark, cold place at nearly 16,000 ft, and it was nearly empty of occupants when I arrived. When I exited my tent on the first morning, the sight of Makalu towering above took my breath away. Rarely does a mountain so dominate a view like this. It was at the same time both incredible and terrible- the latter considering, I’ll have to try to climb this thing, eventually.
More on that soon…Don