Trying to climb one of the high 7,000 meter peaks alpine-style is one of the most serious games in climbing – a mission I mightw loosely compare to some kind of bizarre, wilderness-experiential, high-stakes poker game. You spend the first two-thirds of the expedition trying to learn as much as possible about the cards you have been dealt: the conditions on the mountain, the weather, your own fitness and psyche, and that of your teammates as well. The last third of the trip, you lay your money down and make your wager.
I’ve been home from Nuptse for just over a month. Life is beginning to settle down, and, with the distance of a few weeks time to reflect, I’m not really surprised that we failed. What’s always surprising is how much you learn from the experience of failure…
From the very beginning, things didn’t go right.
Little things, like the delay in Kathmandu as we waited for the weather to clear enough for our flight into the hills. After three days of building angst, our trekking agent procured four last-minute boarding passes for us to make the final flight of the day to Lukla. It took another week for our luggage to catch up with us.
Basecamp was pitched and waiting at 5400 meters. We’d all spent plenty enough time at basecamps of a similar elevation scattered around the Himalayas; for some reason, this go around, the altitude hit double-hard. Perhaps the extra time in Kathmandu wore our immune systems down. My three teammates, Kevin Mahoney, Ben Gilmore, and Cory Richards are pretty tough guys - but we all had days when making it to the dining room tent and choking down a meal without ralfing took major effort.
The plan was to attempt a new mixed route on the perimeter of the Cobweb Wall – the colossal diamond shaped cliff that dominates the western flank of the south face of Nuptse and Lhotse. The wall itself will probably only succumb to a serious capsule-style aid/big wall ascent, but we had noticed intriguing possibilities just to its right, where a complex face of interwoven mixed runnels rises from the cirque at the head of the Nuptse Glacier between the Cobweb on the left and the classic (and sandbagged) British Route, the historic line that was the mountain’s first ascent.
But as we spent our first week in basecamp nursing various vague altitude-related ailments, those routes began to look more and more Serious, with a capital “S”: two thousand meters of relief, and guaranteed to be technical all the way from the glacier at approximately 5600 meters to the summit ridge at around 7700 meters. Significant seracs hemmed the peripheral edges on both sides, and we also noted regular rock fall and runnels scoured down to exposed rock that ran daily with water. It was clear to us that the bottom third of the face could only be safely climbed at night. The upper third of the mountain, meanwhile, where the rock changes from granite to shale, looked conspicuously lacking in any logical lines and was thrashed with high winds every afternoon. Over on the British Route, we could see crown lines a quarter-mile long with the naked eye.
We quickly realized that if we were going to climb the South Face of Nuptse, we needed to be able to move fast, and conditions needed to be perfect: the weather, the snow, our fitness, acclimatization, and psyche all needed to be perfectly aligned. With anything other than a perfect hand, the face was just too dangerous. In the meantime, while we waited to see what kind of cards we held, we decided to acclimatize on the West Ridge of Nutpse, a king-sized line by itself, but one that looked from basecamp to be less technical and objectively safe.
After a few more boutswith the ‘tude (re: altitude), we four found ourselves ensconced in an advance base camp at the foot of the ridge and ready to make our first stab onto the mountain. Then, a pair of sunglasses unexpectedly broke in the rush of the pre-dawn departure, and it was back to basecamp, yet again. When we finally launched onto the mountain three days later, a few high Cirrus clouds began to push in from the Southeast. Cory prudently suggested going down (yet again), while I somewhat recklessly argued that it couldn’t get that bad. (Fred: “I’ve never seen it seriously storm in the Khumbu this time of year!”) Thankfully I was overruled and we made it back to basecamp late that night.
The next day was completely socked in and it snowed six inches. It took another day for it to clear. As we bidded our time playing countless games of war and solitaire, bad news came trickling in. Word came through Cory of the death of his friend Chhewang Sherpa, a career professional guide with nineteen Everest summits who was killed by serac fall on Baruntse. We also heard second-hand reports that our friend Joe Puryear was killed in Tibet when a cornice collapsed unexpectedly.
For the time being at least, we tried our best to keep these tragedies at arm’s length, and focus on giving the ridge another attempt. The climbing thus far had been pretty straightforward, technically speaking, and we were far enough along in the acclimatization schedule that it seemed plausible we could make a serious go for the summit via the ridge, if the weather would only cooperate. Two days later, we said good-bye to Cory, who had run out of time, and Ben, Kevin and I headed up again to ABC, hopeful that at last, this time, we’d make an honest effort.
It was not to be.
The ridge turned out to be – as ridges often are – DOH! – deceptively hard, with two kilometers of near horizontal, knife-edged snow climbing with countless cornices to negotiate; the recent news about Joe being lost on similar terrain did not help our psyche here. After two days of climbing we bivouacked on a spectacularly exposed snow bump at approximately 6300 meters. The setting was out of this world: The the Nuptse Glacier on one side; The Khumbu Glacier and the lights of Gorak Shep on the other. As for Nuptse, the summit was a long, long way away. (Ben: “Another two days of climbing, and we’ll get to the mountain.”)
The next morning, in strong winds, we woke and took a look at the nightmare line up of cornices stretching towards the upper mountain. All of us realized at this point that, should we continue farther along the ridge, there was no way we’d reverse this terrain on the way down, meaning we’d have to on-sight a different descent route. This factor was the last straw: all other descents we could think of entailed major exposure to seracs and other objective danger.
No words needed to be said. We all looked at the cards one more time, and knew that it was time to fold.
Two days later, as we struck basecamp and headed towards Namche, a helicopter crashed on Ama Dablam, taking two more lives. It had been trying to rescue a pair of alpinists who had become stuck on the incredibly steep snow formations of the mountain’s upper North Ridge – terrain very similar to what we encountered on Nuptse’s West Ridge.
What strikes me now about our Nuptse misadventures, despite the obvious signs that things were not going as planned, is that we still found the space to daydream. On the right hand edge of the Cobweb Wall, a small rib protrudes just far enough from the main face that it might be protected. This feature connects the opening snowfield to the final couloir in an elegant diagonal zig-zag, a masterpiece of alpine aesthetics which we dubbed the Zorro Line. In perfect conditions, holding the perfect hand, was this line climbable? We left basecamp without a real answer – and that, more than anything, is the most frustrating aspect of a trip such as ours. The cards were so bad, we never really got the chance to place our bet.
In closing, I’m tempted to write something introspective and fluffy – something referencing vague ideals of personal growth, balance, and understanding. But that’s not the truth. “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough,” is a phrase I occasionally hear at the local crag or gym. Falling is rarely an option in alpine climbing, but failing certainly is. The Zorro, and Nuptse, is a stunning challenge. Despite all the disappointments along the way, I don’t regret the six weeks of my life I spent trying to unlock its secrets.
The simple fact is Nuptse kicked our ass, and we turned and went home running.
Many, many thanks to everyone who supported our trip, including Mountain Hardwear, La Sportiva, Julbo, Sterling Ropes, Clif Bar, The Copp-Dash Inspire Grant, and The American Alpine Club’s Lyman Spitzer Award. We hope that our decisions and conduct on the mountain honor all who were involved.