What’s the most impressive unclimbed line on an 8,000-meter peak? Before July 15 many climbers would have said it was the Mazeno Ridge on Nanga Parbat (8,126-meters/26,660 feet), a six-mile-long serrated edge of snow and loose rock that separates the Diamar and Rupal faces. The ridge had repulsed 10 expeditions, shutting down super-alpinists like Doug Scott, Wojciech Kurtyka, Erhard Loretan, Doug Chabot, Steve Swenson and Jean Troillet. The last team to try, in 2011, didn’t even reach the start of the ridge.
It’s not surprising that Nanga Parbat was guarding her last plum with such tenacity. Dubbed the “man-eater” by locals in reference to the 31 people who lost their lives prior to the first ascent by Herman Buhl in 1953, the “Naked Mountain” [Urdu] is the world’s ninth highest and the western terminus of the Himalaya. The Mazeno Ridge is the longest ridge on any mountain over 8,000 meters and traverses the summits of eight peaks over 7,000-meters. The hard climbing and extended time at altitude seemed to suck the chi right out of the world’s strongest alpine ninjas, chewing them up and spitting them out looking like freeze-dried dates. After all the failures—all the climbers turned back by bad snow, sketchy rock and just plain exhaustion—it was becoming clear that whoever sent the ridge was going to have to be technically sharp, uncommonly bold, and tough as boiled dog meat.
This prerequisite toughness might suggest that a young gun would make the first ascent of the ridge—someone similar to the 29-year-old Buhl who was so full of piss and vinegar that he survived an open bivy on Nanga Parbat just by standing on a small ledge and clutching a handhold all night. But fickle history would frustrate any prognostication as two comparatively old guys would find themselves alone and in position to seize the prize.
On July 12 the British Mazeno Ridge Expedition (Sandy Allan, Cathy O’Dowd, Rick Allen, and Sherpas Lhakpa Rangdu, Lhakpa Zarok, and Lhakpa Nuru) set out from their high camp at 7,160 meters for the summit. It was their eleventh day on the ridge. The food was running out and the Sherpas were complaining. O’Dowd was exhausted and cold. Lhakpa Nuru was “despondent.” Seven days before, on July 5, Nuru had fallen almost 165 feet (the entire length of the rope). The delay in getting him back up through the chest-deep snow had forced an unplanned bivy. Rick Allen and Lhakpa Rangdu had spent that night in a snow pit and Lhakpa Zarok and Lhakpa Nuru had slept in the open, covering their legs with tent fabric. Cathy O’Dowd was in a tent with Sandy Allan, but had been up all night vomiting. That night and the subsequent days of hard, high climbing had taken a toll.
On summit day, the climbing soon became technical and they used their tools to scratch through very steep, loose bands of rock to a ridge crest with a view down the entire 15,000-foot Rupal Face. Above, steep snow-filled couloirs ran out to a far-away summit just being lit by the morning sun. Despite the hopeful image the ridge crest looked endless, exposed and hard, and it was a moment of reckoning for O’Dowd and Nuru. After a brief conference, they roped together and descended back to the 7,160-meter camp.
Zarok and Rangdu, Allen and Allan then formed separate rope teams and continued up more steep, loose rock toward the summit, found some ice and traversed to a high point, but upon being confronted by more bands of loose rock, they decided to retreat. Hoping to avoid reversing the steep rock, the two teams began downclimbing a narrow bench with sketchy axe and crampon placements.
On his blog, Sandy Allan described what happened next: “Lhakpa Zarok missed his footing and fell, and his sliding fall pulled Lhakpa Rangdu who had efficiently kicked his feet into a stance to hold the fall. The force catapulted Rangdu off his feet and both slid down about 350 – 400 meters. Watching, I thought they were not going to come to a halt and continue their fall all the way down the Diamar, however, their line of slide took them to a hollow.”
Badly shaken the four men returned to the 7,160-meter camp and discussed their options. The Lhakpas and O’Dowd elected to descend the Schell Route—an audacious plan that they would pull off but not without mishap. Lhakpa Rangdu broke his ankle and they narrowly avoided being swept away by avalanches.
Allan and Allen decided to give the summit one more shot.
These two veterans had put their time in guiding and climbing in the Himalaya. Scotsman Sandy Allan, 56, had been to the Himalaya several times, climbing Muztagh Tower, Pumori, Shivling, Cho Oyo, Lhotse West Summit and Everest. Englishman Rick Allen, 58, had been on over 20 expeditions with ascents of Everest, Gasherbrum I and Dhaulagiri where he joined with a Russian team to make a first ascent of the North face. Both Sandy and Rick had been on Doug Scott’s 1995 Mazeno Ridge expedition, and both had summitted Nanga Parbat in 2009.
They woke early on the morning of July 14 but were still a long way from the summit at 5 p.m. They decided to bivy and give it one more try the next day. Since they had left their tent at the lower camp (intending to get it on the descent), they dug a snowcave at 7,720-meters where they passed their 13th night on the ridge. The next morning, fueled by a single digestive biscuit each, they ploughed through deep snow to the summit where they “wandered about descending and ascending several tops” in thick clouds for four more hours before finding the actual summit.
Arriving back at the 7,720-meter camp after dark they were disturbed to find that the lighter had stopped working and they couldn’t melt water to drink.
On the 16th they descended through very deep snow in visibility so bad that Allan had to navigate by compass. After six hours they stopped and bivied somewhere in the vicinity of Kinshofer Camp 4. No food or water.
On the 17th of July they continued descending the Kinshofer route to above Camp Two where poor visibility, spindrift and cold forced another open bivy. They hacked out a narrow ledge and spent the night clipped to ice screws. No food or water.
On the 18th they met Marek Holecek and Zdenek Hruby, two Czech climbers, at the belay on top of the Kinshofer Wall. Sandy Allan borrowed a lighter and melted snow and they enjoyed their first drink in three days. The Czechs gave them Snickers bars.
They reached the Czech base camp on the 19th and the Pakistani staff fed them and treated their frostbite. In return, Allan and Allen sent their Sirdar to a local village to buy a goat and, as Allan wrote: “Late that evening … Holecek and Hruby returned from Camp Two and we enjoyed a huge dinner party prepared by the Pakistani staff.”
All quotes are from Sandy Allan’s trip report: teamascent.blogspot.com
For more photos and a complete account of Cathy O’Dowd and the Lhakpas’ gripping descent down “Not The Schell Route” go to mazenoridge.com.
Thanks to David Roberts for reminding me about this significant ascent and suggesting that we cover it in more detail.
All Photos: British Nanga Parbat Expedition 2012 unless otherwise credited.