Annapurna South Face: an extract from Quest for Adventure
- Tuesday 10th October 2017
Annapurna: South Face
Big wall climbing in the Himalaya, 1970
We projected the two-metre-square picture on to the wall of the living room and gazed and gazed – excited and then frightened. ‘There’s a line all right,’ said Martin, ‘but it’s bloody big.’ The South Face of Annapurna – I don’t think I remember seeing a mountain photograph that has given such an impression of huge size and steepness. It was like four different Alpine faces piled one on top of the other – but what a line! Hard, uncompromising, positive all the way up. A squat snow ridge, like the buttress of a Gothic cathedral, leaned against the lower part of the wall. That was the start all right; perhaps one could bypass it by sneaking along the glacier at its foot – but what about avalanche risk? The buttress led to an ice ridge; even at the distance from which the photograph had been taken one could see it was a genuine knife-edge. I had climbed something like it before, on the South Face of Nuptse, the third peak of the Everest range – in places we had been able to look straight through the ridge, thirty metres below its crest. That had been frightening; this would be worse. The knife-edge died below a band of ice cliffs.
‘I wonder how stable they are?’ asked Nick.
I wondered too and traced a line through them with only partial confidence. And that led to a rock band.
‘Must be at least a thousand feet.’
‘But what altitude is it? Could be at 23,000 feet. Do you fancy some hard climbing at that height?’
‘What about that groove?’ It split the crest of the ridge, a huge gash, inviting, but undoubtedly more difficult and sustained than anything that had ever been climbed at that altitude.
The rock band ended with what seemed to be a shoulder of snow that led to the 8,091-metre summit. It was difficult to tell just how high the face was, but you could have fitted the North Wall of the Eiger into it two, perhaps even three, times. The expedition was barely conceived, and I don’t think any of us fully realised then the significance of what we were trying to do. The South Face of Annapurna was considerably steeper, bigger and obviously more difficult than anything that had hitherto been attempted in the Himalaya. Our decision to tackle it, first arrived at in autumn 1968, was part of a natural evolution, not only on a personal level but also within the broad development of Himalayan climbing. It is significant that around the same time groups of German and Japanese climbers, without any contact with ourselves or each other, were planning similar expeditions – the Germans, under Dr Karl Herrligkoffer, to the huge Rupal Face of Nanga Parbat, and the Japanese to the South-West Face of Everest.
I had been a member of two conventional Himalayan expeditions in 1960 and 1961, making the first ascents of Annapurna II (7,937 metres) and Nuptse (7,879 metres). This was very much part of the first wave of Himalayan climbing, when climbers were attempting first ascents of the myriad of unclimbed peaks. By 1969, however, the Himalaya was in the same state of development as the European Alps had been in the mid-nineteenth century, with most of the highest peaks achieved and climbers now turning their attention to the challenge of harder and harder routes. In the Alps there had been a gradual development of skills and techniques, enabling pioneers to climb successively more difficult ridges and then faces, slowly filling in all the gaps of unclimbed ground.
Inevitably, however, this gradual evolution was accelerated in the Himalaya where climbers had skills developed on the rock and ice of the Alps as a reference. For political reasons, the Himalaya had been closed to climbers from 1965 to 1969. Nick Estcourt, Martin Boysen and I had been talking about going off on an expedition somewhere – anywhere, probably to Alaska – when we heard that Nepal was going to open its frontiers once again. The selection of an objective was strongly influenced by my experience on Annapurna II and Nuptse. All the highest peaks in Nepal had been climbed, and although we could have gone for an unclimbed 7,500-metre one, I felt that this would have been a lesser experience than the peaks I had already climbed. A big unclimbed face, on the other hand, would give an altogether new dimension – the combination of a North Wall of the Eiger with all the problems of scale and altitude. At the time I did not stop to analyse my motives; it was more a gut feeling, a rejection of the familiar in favour of the new, unknown experience which, after all, is the very essence of adventure.
It was at this stage that I first saw a photo of the South Face of Annapurna and showed it to Martin Boysen and Nick Estcourt. During the following months the team grew as I began to put together the expedition. For me it was an adventure on two levels, both in terms of the mountain challenge and also grappling with the problems of organisation and leadership. I had never before led an expedition, had never considered myself to be the organising type. In fact, my lack of organisation was becoming a bad joke among my friends. I was unpunctual, forgetful and absent-minded. Although I had held a commission in the regular army, my military career was hardly distinguished. I had detested all the administrative jobs that I had been given as a junior officer and one commanding officer had even refused to recommend me for the almost automatic promotion to captain because of my poor personal administration – there were never enough lamp bulbs in the barrack room I was responsible for.
And now I was trying to organise and lead the largest and most complex expedition since the 1953 Everest expedition. Some of my antecedents might have been similar to those of John Hunt – we had at least both been to Sandhurst, but there is a vast difference between commanding a brigade in battle and misdirecting a troop of three tanks on army manoeuvres in North Germany. However, I did have the experience I had gained both on hard Alpine climbs and also in the past few years when I had earned a living as a freelance writer and photographer, joining projects like Blashford-Snell’s Blue Nile expedition and going off to Baffin Island in the middle of winter to hunt with the Eskimos. It had taught me to be more organised in myself and also to understand how the media worked, a thing that was essential if you wanted to finance an expedition.
There were many moments in the months of preparation when I knew a blank despair, either appalled by organisational mistakes I had made, by personality problems or, most of all, by the fear of the whole thing being a complete flop. After all, we had only seen a photograph of the face. We had been given the sponsorship of the Mount Everest Foundation, we would have a TV team with us, every move would be reported. What if the route proved impossibly dangerous, if it were swept by avalanche so that we could barely make a start on the face? Could I really control and co-ordinate this group of talented, strong and at times bloody-minded individuals?