Book of the month: In Some Lost Place
- Monday 1st April 2019
Looking back along the ridge from the Diamir west flank. © Sandy Allan.
Nanga Parbat has been back at the forefront of media coverage over the last few weeks with the tragic loss of climbers Tom Ballard and Daniele Nardi on the mountain's lethal Mummery Spur route. Back in the summer of 2012 Sandy Alan and Rick Allen, both in their late fifties, set out with a team of climbers to attempt the first ascent of Nanga Parbat's ten-kilometre Mazeno Ridge – one of the most coveted then unclimbed lines in the Himalaya. They succeeded where ten expeditions before them had failed and were awarded the prestigious 2013 Piolet d’Or. But during their eighteen-day ordeal, as they began to run out of food and water and hallucinate wildly from the effects of altitude, they knew their bodies could not sustain these conditions for long. Sandy's epic account of their ascent, In Some Lost Place, is a reminder of the risks and rewards of attempting unclimbed routes in the pursuit of the elusive first ascent. Read on for a free extract.
Buy In Some Lost Place this month and get a free copy of The Magician's Glass, which contains an essay on Solvenian mountaineer Tomaž Humar who was rescued from Nanga Parbat at 5,900 metres in 2015 after being marooned on a narrow ice ledge for six days. This is believed to be one of the few successful rescues to take place at such high altitude.
I’m always wary of involvement with snow; it is enigmatic stuff, a dazzling, wonderful, intriguing phenomenon. Dave McClung and Peter Schaerer’s The Avalanche Handbook, my bible on the subject, would dictate that we should have gone around this area of risk – as would common sense. Bruce Tremper’s Staying Alive in Avalanche Terrain would definitely question my sanity. But the reality was that if I wanted to avoid this slope we would have needed to climb back up over the summit and descend the Schell. That wasn’t going to happen. Nor did we have the resources to dig in and wait in our sleeping bags while the slopes below consolidated. We had no option but to climb down, even if there was a risk that we might be avalanched off the slope. To continue and maybe die, or stay and definitely die – it wasn’t a hard decision.
Rick was fine, but a bit shocked that I had used him as an avalanche trigger. I think he realised he was not quite as sharp and attentive to the snow conditions as he might have been, but good luck was on our side. Moreover, I was delighted when we neared the site of Camp 3. That meant we had traversed the very unstable snowpack and only had to worry about slopes avalanching on us from above. That too was a real risk and one we could only hope didn’t happen. Speed of travel is imperative in such situations; you know there is a serious risk from objective dangers like avalanches or hanging séracs, but all you can do is respect them and get on with it. Scurrying under such dangers I could almost hear the time bomb ticking; I tried by an act of mental will to slow it down so we could make our escape before the whole thing exploded. We were truly in the lap of the gods.
We still had not seen any other mountaineers on the normal route, but this did at least mean we didn’t have to worry about people triggering the slopes above us. Yet I felt immense pressure. As each hour ticked by our physical condition got worse. The irony was obvious – we were surrounded by water, millions of tons of water, all of it frozen. We were still burning calories with every step, but food was now a distant memory. All we had left was the endless process of ploughing through the snow, every step an immense effort we could no longer afford.
Eventually we reached the brow of the gently curving slopes by Camp 3, and as we moved down them I realised I was hallucinating. Nothing was making sense. I couldn’t really understand what was happening, but it wasn’t at all distressing – quite the opposite. In the rocks way below us, Snoopy, Charlie Brown’s cartoon dog from the Schulz comic strip Peanuts, was sitting upright and alert on a narrow rock ledge. I thought at first that I was simply looking at a naturally occurring design where ice had frozen into cracks in the rock. But when I looked harder, it was clear as day. There was Snoopy. I found it immensely comforting to know he was there.
The snowpack was slightly less deep here, and there were exposed sections where the snow had been blown clean off, revealing hard, glass-like ice the colour of chromium. Crossing this we had to focus hard so we didn’t slip, stabbing in the front points of our crampons to climb down the bottle-smooth surface. Normally there are old fixed ropes here, but we couldn’t find any. I remembered from our ascent in 2009 that the fixed ropes had to be moved higher up the mountain to assist climbers on the mountain that year.
One of them was a lovely South Korean lady called Go Mi-Sun, who we nicknamed Miss Go. She had climbed eleven of the 8,000-metre peaks, mostly with supplementary oxygen, and was trying to become the first Korean woman to complete the list. Go Mi-Sun and others from her Korean and Sherpa team had made the summit late in the evening, several hours behind Rick and me. The winds had been terribly strong. While Rick and I lay resting in our tent at Camp 4, we got word that Miss Go’s summit team, including the Sherpa and Pakistani high-altitude porters helping her, were benighted and trapped.
We sent some of Gerfried Göschl’s porters to go to their assistance, but in the stormy conditions only some of them managed to reach the distressed climbers and pass on Thermos flasks of warm water and food. The Pakistani porters then helped guide the climbers back to Camp 4 by torch-light. The Korean team was exhausted and in quite a bad way. The following morning they slept late and, as a consequence, descended in bright sunshine which only added to the debilitating effect of high altitude on their tired bodies. While traversing this section between camps 3 and 2, Miss Go slipped off the hard ice. I can imagine her frantically trying to stop her fall but gathering speed until she was lost forever, another victim of the killer mountain. Base Camp was a melancholy place after her death.
I tried hard to avoid thinking of Miss Go’s pretty smile as I climbed down the glassy ice, taking great care with my crampon placements. Snoopy was still there, on the same rock ledge, smiling at me. Eventually we came to some ridges in the snow’s surface which suggested there was something just below the surface. When we dug down with our ice axes we found what we expected, old snow anchors with lengths of frozen fixed rope. The frozen rope was stretched tight, and on easier sections it was simpler for us to climb down, but on steeper sections we tried to dig the ropes out to speed our descent. I would sit on the snow and belay myself and then lower Rick down the presumed line of old fixed ropes while Rick tried to dig them free.
It was a slow and energy-sapping process. At one point the silhouette of a witch flew by on a broomstick. She was as real to me as Rick was on the other end of the rope. I was sure I was going mad. She had a crooked nose and witch’s hat, all pointy and twisted and rather reminiscent of Chesterfield’s famous crooked church spire. I could still see Snoopy sitting on the ledge of a rock wall below. The hallucinations seemed so real that I took out my camera to take pictures of them. Rick asked me why I was taking so many shots and I did wonder whether I should tell him or not.
Then there was the rabbit. Did I not mention him? I think he was a boy rabbit. He seemed a little bit crazy, alive and alert, mostly off-white or grey in colour. I could clearly see some of the individual black strands of hair that gave him his grey tint. The rabbit seemed to be overflowing with boisterous cheekiness, rather like the White Rabbit in Alice in Wonderland. He wore a bright red waistcoat and had a silver pocket watch chain, hence the White Rabbit, which fell in a curve from a buttonhole to his pocket and sometimes glistened and sparkled as it reflected sunlight. He wore a felt hat like the one you imagine Hermann Buhl might have worn on his first ascent of the mountain, the kind of hat one often still sees Austrian mountain climbers wearing. The rabbit’s big ears stuck through holes in the rim. I was convinced he was real, until it struck me as strange that he did not wear any boots or crampons!
The rabbit scampered back and forth, criss-crossing our line of descent just behind Rick and so out of his sight. He didn’t leave any footprints and I realised that I was concerned for him. Although furry, the rabbit’s feet and toes must be freezing without the protection of footwear. As I lowered Rick I kept looking at the rabbit, kept thinking about his frozen paws. Finally my brain figured out that if the rabbit wasn’t leaving footprints in the snow then he couldn’t be real. Then I realised that the lack of water and my exhaustion were playing havoc with my mind. I was concerned about myself and focused again on the rope and on letting it run carefully through my gloved fingers.
So we went on, with me lowering Rick or both of us climbing down. At times we would thread our rope through the old tat of an anchor we’d excavated and then abseil. Our rope was only fifty metres in length, so by the time we doubled it we could only abseil twenty-five metres at a time. This made for very slow progress, with the threat of avalanches all the while poised above our heads like the Sword of Damocles. We also knew that with every extra minute that passed our starved bodies were deteriorating further. We pushed on with a renewed sense of urgency, frustrated that progress seemed so slow. We felt the time it was taking to uncover the buried frozen ropes was much too much. My toes were becoming increasingly sore and I became aware that they must have been damaged in the cold.
Our extremities were becoming colder and colder, our hands and feet turning numb as our dwindling physical strength was diverted to our cores in a last-ditch attempt to keep us alive. As I kicked my crampon points into hard ice to get a secure footing, my toes felt the pain of each and every impact. Rick was no different, suffering patiently in silence. I still felt okay, apart from worrying about the rabbit, but at the same time I knew I was half out of my mind with exhaustion, dehydration and hypoxia and that my body was struggling.
After what seemed like several hours of agonising slowness we were finally through the steep and exposed part of the descent and came to a flattish but exposed rib, which I remembered well from our 2009 expedition. The sky was darkening, working through a deepening range of blues to a light charcoal, indicating that night was on its way. My nose felt sore and I touched it, realising that it was exposed to the cold air. My neck scarf must have slipped down during the day. I touched it again and as I brought my hand back into view I could see clotted bits of blood and skin on my gloves. This is not going to look cool to my clients when I get back to guiding above Chamonix, I thought. The rabbit had gone now, although when I looked at the rocks Snoopy was still sitting there.
I imagined he must have been as agile as a mountain goat to move around like that from ledge to ledge. All afternoon I looked over to check if I could see him; he was always there, sitting on a ledge. But I never saw him actually move.
A mist came down and enveloped us. I said prayers quietly to myself as I carried on down, but no windows opened in the mist this time and I felt a momentary guilt at bargaining with God in this way and then forgetting about him altogether in times of safety. On reaching the end of the flattish rib area I was certain from my memory that at any point now we had to move rightwards to find a small arête. Then our route should take a semi-technical ridge that would lead us to a rib and eventually to the site of Camp 2. Rick said we had to go left instead, but I just knew he was wrong. It was vital that I listened to him and engaged him by asking why he thought that. I wondered if I should tell him that I was experiencing hallucinations, and felt myself a bit of a cheat for not sharing them. I was still sure in my own mind that I was performing more solidly than him; to let him know that I too was losing it might have been very bad for our confidence. Just because my body was failing and my mind was in an altered state didn’t mean I couldn’t make sound decisions. So I decided it was best to keep Snoopy, the witch and the cheery rabbit all to myself, which actually indicated to me the lunacy of my own logic.