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…