Peak 41 – An attempt at a Himalayan Giant
The day to climb had arrived, and I couldn’t have felt less ready. I lay awake wrapped in two sleeping bags, waiting for my 3:45am alarm, hoping it would never come. At around 3:30 I heard movement from the other side of base camp, and I knew Rob was up and packing his gear, well before his alarm had gone off.
I crept my fingers out of the tent, pulling the frozen zip just enough for one eye to glance in to the night. It was cold and still. I was hoping for a storm, a snowfall, an excuse, but there was nothing but a huge Himalayan face eerily lit by the moonlight. I ignored the face and I ignored my half-packed rucksack and I went back to being terrified. Then, as loud as a bomb against the silent Himalayan night, my alarm went off. It was time to go.
A few weeks earlier we’d partied all night long in Rob’s Llanberis house. It was 4am by the time sleep came and we’d finished several bottles of whisky and Lord knows what else.
The whole village it seemed had turned out to see us go, and the next morning packing the bags didn’t come easily. We were, to put it mildly, a little groggy.
We drove to London, and flew to Kathmandu. We were excited, a little apprehensive, and very much clueless as to what Himalayan climbing was all about.
Kathmandu was a mixture of sights and sounds, and our stay there was longer than expected. We first had to arrange our climbing permits, and that, plus the internal flights to the tiny mountain airport of Lukla being delayed, meant that almost a week passed before we escaped the clutches of the warren of Thamel, Kathmandu’s main hustle and bustle tourist area.
The best part of the expedition was, for me, the following multi-day approach to the Hongu valley. The trekking was fantastic, the people in the villages were friendly, and the views of the Himalayan mountains were everything I’d hoped for.
We slogged it out for eight days, through the Hinku valley and over to the Hongu. This trek involved crossing some high passes and descending through lush valleys. The further we got from Lukla, the less travelled the region became, and each tiny mountain village had fewer amenities and a more remote feel.
One of the most idyllic villages on the route was Kothe (3570m), which was just low enough in altitude to be a functioning place. It wasn’t perma-frozen, and even had a pretty, English speaking shop keeper, who took a shine to Rob’s charms. A real mountain paradise in comparison to some of the higher hamlets that seemed to struggle to maintain existence in the face of such adverse mountain weather.
We crossed the snow-covered Mera Pass, at over 5400m, and looked up to the summit (it seemed not too far from the pass!) of Mera Peak (6476).
The views from the Mera area were stunning, and the non-technical nature of the mountain means that it is accessible to many people, and is relatively easy to climb. I’d love to go back and guide this peak, and hopefully I will get to do this in the not too distant future.
On this trip though, we didn’t climb it. Instead we forged on in to the upper Hongu Valley and landed at a flat, scrubby area below Peak 41. Base camp.
Base camp was above 5000m. The valley was too high to support any permanent human life, or any cattle, or as far as we saw any wildlife at all, and the extreme altitude meant that plant life was also limited. It was a desolately beautiful place. The temperature barely rose above freezing, and the little sun the base camp did catch was cut off far too soon by the towering peaks that surrounded it. It was an inhospitable and windy place for a base camp, and the weeks we spent there were cold and draining, despite the amazing views.
Rob and I acclimatised by climbing up a nearby ridge on the smaller mountain of Hunku (6119m), not to the summit, but high enough to give the lungs a work-out, stopping when we found an area flat enough to pitch the tent.
Later in the trip we set off for Baruntse, a nearby 7000m peak. We figured that we’d climb to camp 1 on Baruntse and that would be good acclimatisation. It was a long trek to the foot of the mountain, and by the time we passed sherpas and climbers using fixed ropes (we generally just soloed the easy ground near to the ropes) I was really tired.
It was interesting to see the whole Himalayan climbing thing in action, with clients, sherpas and fixed lines, and a siege style approach to climbing. In contrast our alpine-style approach seemed faster, logistically easier and much more like the climbing I am used to in the Alps.
All that being said, when I looked up at the North Face of Peak 41, I knew, deep down, that we wouldn’t be able to climb it. It just looked too hard. But the alarm had gone off, the mountain beckoned, and we had to give it a try.
Breakfast of tea and porridge passed quickly, and I passed my porridge to Rob, a man who can eat in the face of adversity. I was scared and intimidated, and I hoped Rob wouldn’t notice. I found out later that he had.
Back at the tent, my headtorch died, which was odd, as the batteries were brand new. Another omen. I forced on my frozen boots, at the last second opting to wear a slightly thicker pair of liner socks than normal. The boots felt too tight. Argh. Rob was waiting, hopping from one foot to another in the -10°C gloom. First the torch, now the boots. I was flustered, angry and not thinking straight. Not good. Not good.
Rob waited patiently as his ridiculous climbing partner wasted more valuable time stripping off boots and socks. And then, no more excuses, we were off.
I was behind by some margin as we hit the snow-dusted approach slopes, making tedious progress over loose rock and moraine. The distant head-light bobbed along, almost gayly (was he actually singing to himself?), the gap between us too large for conversation, not that I had any. My nose ran, my face froze and I concentrated on not turning an ankle in the collapsing boulder field.
We reached the huge snow couloir at the foot of the north face of Peak 41, took our axes and began to climb. With each kick, with each swing of the axe, my mind became absorbed and quiet.
The fear, so strong just moments before, dropped away like the ground beneath me. I was just climbing, nothing more, nothing less. We climbed on as day quietly broke around us, shadows dancing and playing on the deep walls of the gully.
The hugeness of the face became apparent as features that were hidden by darkness showed their true size.
We were concentrating hard. The snow was mostly dangerous; sheets of windslab over bottomless sugar-snow. Boards of snow the size of kitchen tables broke away and skidded down to oblivion. We kept to the side of the gully and made steady progress. Occasional ice bulges guarded progress, not technical as such, perhaps grade 3, but enough to give stopping points, rests, a mental break from the avalanche prone slopes.
The thin ice gully we had hoped to access was tantalisingly close, but was guarded by an 80m ice smear, just 2 inches thick. It was hard and steep, but climbable, it teased us. A fall from this ice smear would be fatal, it would take no gear for at least 50 metres. We decided that this was not the place for deadly gambles, but the mountain gave us another option, a steep ice and snow couloir that was hidden from view until the last second. The couloir skirted left-wards and joined the ridge we were aiming for.
The terrain steepened and for the first time we roped up. A sheet of good ice was covered in 8 inches of rime, which made for slow but safe progress, as ice screws could be dug out whenever nerve began to waver. The top of the icesheet steepened even more, and pushed us rightwards against the rockwall. This was our first experience of the rock on Peak 41 and it wasn’t good. Frost shattered shale that would take no weight, no gear, and no prisoners. Finally we popped out on to the ridge, tired, surprised at how little progress we seemed to have made, but happy with a safe bivvy spot, that would get morning sun.
We watched nightfall over Everest and settled in to our tiny bivvy tent, waiting for the sunrise.
Morning came and and with it my feet, numb after being pushed against the tent wall, came back to life. The morning was stunning. Spirits were high, bodies were tired, but the elation of being in such a wondrous place, with such a good friend, energised my legs and made me eager to tackle what lay ahead.
After a sustained lung-bursting effort up deep snow and poor rock, Rob flopped on to the ridge line that we hoped would take us to the summit. It looked bad; he was kicking with his legs, squirming with his body, a technique I can only assume he uses more regularly on gritstone top-outs than Himalayan faces. He thrashed around like a fish on a hook, and eventually, when he had balanced himself seesaw-like atop the crest, head in the sun, feet in the shade, he caught his breath and shouted down to me; “the ridge is a no go”.
The ridge was collapsing under his body weight. It was unclimbable.
An hour or so later and we were back on the ledge. We briefly discussed options, but really both of us knew we had been defeated by the mountain and were ready to turn around.
Rob, keen as ever, was itching to start the long journey down, and was sorting his gear. I looked around me at the vista; Everest in the distance, with its continuous wind-plume drifting like smoke from a factory chimney. The long, empty valley beneath me. Peaks all around, not a breath of wind on our mountain, and blue sky above.
The hugeness of the place engulfed me, and I felt my insignificance.
I pulled out a bag of jelly babies and asked Rob if he would mind if I just sat for half an hour. I told him that this might be the only time I am halfway up an unclimbed Himalayan face with a view of Everest. He looked around, smiled and agreed. I gave him a jelly baby.
A mixture of emotions welled up. All that time, energy and focus and we had ‘failed’. And yet here we were, in this place, two friends, a view that really my words can not do justice to, an experience that I will never forget; a moment in time, that without this ‘failure’, I would never have experienced. Suddenly we weren’t in a rush, and the stress of the summit had been taken away.
I slowly pulled the head off another jelly baby, and gazed out across the valley. I sat quietly, knowing that this moment, right now, this was it. This was my life. Never before had I experienced such a sense of being in the moment. When technical climbing, when you are in the zone, concentrating without thinking, arms and legs moving fluidly and the mind focused but quiet, it’s a special feeling and one that comes all too rarely.
But this was something completely different. A slower sensation, a more contemplative experience. A sense of wonder.
There is a question which every boy has to ask himself sooner or later. It is a very simple and a very searching question. “Shall I make my life, which after all, I can only live once, a matter of a safe job? Or shall I put it boldly to the hazard? Shall I make it a matter of adventure? Shall I give it, as far as I can, the bright colours of romance?” Prose or poetry; the safe job or the spirit of adventure – that is the question, and that is the choice.
– Sir Ernest Barker (Introduction to the book ‘The Spirit of Wonder’)