In “Forgotten First Ascents,” Owen Clarke is digging up cool climbs from the past and talking to the climbers who made them happen. This week:The Crystal Snake, Nuptse (7,861 m/25,790 ft), Nepal, 2003.
For Damian Benegas, climbing in the Himalayas is represented by two cookie jars. One is an “Unlucky Cookie Jar” and one is a “Lucky Cookie Jar.”
“After each climb, we take a lucky cookie, and put it in the unlucky cookie jar,” Benegas explained. “As time progresses, the lucky jar is empty, and the unlucky jar is full.” As Damian sees it, you can be a safe, experienced, skilled climber, but in the big mountains, sometimes even having perfect systems, perfect judgement, perfect technique, isn’t enough.
Damian and his twin brother Willie have climbed and guided across the globe, from Yosemite to Patagonia, with dozens of Himalayan expeditions under their belts. So he knows the range as well as any. Out of all their expeditions, however, none holds the same special significance as The Crystal Snake (5.9 M4 WI5). This 1,500-meter column of near-continuous ice climbs the north buttress of the 7,861-meter (25,760 feet) Nuptse, a prominent summit in the Everest Massif southwest of Everest itself.
Nuptse had enchanted Damian’s brother Willie when he first glimpsed what would become the The Crystal Snake in 1999, on his first Everest trip. He described it in an essay in the 2004 American Alpine Journal as “the most impressive and beautiful line that my eyes had ever seen. A couloir of perfect ice, faultless and clear as crystal” running from bottom to top.
When Willie returned from Everest that year, Damian remembered what it was like meeting him at the airport. “I was so psyched for him. I was so proud, and he just said, ‘Yeah yeah, Everest was okay…but I saw the most perfect line in my life on Nuptse!’ and he went on and on. He wouldn’t stop talking about it,” Damian said, laughing. Willie was so determined to climb it that he had already named the route.
Willie went back to guide Everest in 2000, 2001 and 2002, scoping out The Crystal Snake each time. In 2003, with sponsorship from The North Face, the brothers finally got their shot.
Despite the fact that it’s one of the closest major summits to Everest, in those days Nuptse lived far from the spotlight afforded it’s taller cousin. When Willie and Damian arrived to attempt their new line, there had been only four ascents of Nuptse since the first in 1961. Everest, meanwhile, had already seen over 1,000.
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After acclimatizing and waiting for a window for most of April, the brothers began up the route on May 6, 2003.
“We climbed 400 meters of hard ice,” said Damian, “and set up a crappy, crappy bivy. The worst bivy of my life.” Willie and Damian were on separate sides of a rock, and carved a tunnel between the rock to pass each other supplies.
They woke to a minor tragedy. Their stove had broken in the night. With no way to melt water or cook, they were in trouble. “We thought we can just drop everything and go up super fast,” said Damian, “but we knew if we did this, we wouldn’t be coming down. We still had 1,000 meters to go.” Not wanting to tempt the cookie-jar gods, the Benegas brothers bailed. They fixed gear in some of the cruxes and left their camera, sleeping bags, and other supplies on the wall, partially “to blackmail ourselves so we’d have to come back,” said Damian.
Two days later, after scrounging extra ice screws and a new stove, they returned for round 2.
“The bivvies were just horrendous,” said Damian. “So much spindrift, constantly.”
They powered through a cruxy slab section high up on the wall, and then gingerly simuled their way up a treacherous 55-degree snow slope, primed to avalanche. Arriving at the first rock band on the ridge, they scored the first solid bivy of the climb, and continued the next day under horrendous winds and heavy spindrift on shoddy rock, where Willie had trouble “placing even psychological protection.” Damian, meanwhile, was battling the notorious Khumbu Cough, coughing so badly he broke a rib. Out of the 42 pitches on the wall, he ended up leading only two.
To help Willie conserve his strength for leading, Damian gave him the best bivvies. “One was awful, barely wide enough to sleep on,” said Damian. The heavy snowfall during the night built up between Damian and the wall. He woke at 2:00 a.m. to find himself hanging in midair, nudged off the ledge by a growing snow mound.
On the sixth day they finally reached the summit, battling more brutal winds and heavy spindrift. The descent was just as treacherous. They rappelled a British route from 1979, having to search for halfway-decent anchors constantly (Ueli Steck died on a steep section of this route in 2017).
“It was so thin. We couldn’t get ice screws. We couldn’t get rock pro. Most of it we just had to downclimb,” Damian said. They reached the glacier safely, however, and then Camp 2 on Everest the next morning.
Battling rock and ice isn’t the real difficulty in the mountains for Damian. “The climb was a climb,” he said. “It was hard, but the hardest thing was the next day. We got news that a Sherpa was coming down from South Col.” The man hadn’t drank anything for three days, so by the time he got to Camp 2 he was in bad shape.
The brothers put him in a stretcher, and spent the next 24 hours trying to save his life. “We did the most horrendous Tyrolean traverse with this man in a stretcher,” said Damian. They managed to make it to the edge of the Khumbu Icefall. At one point they had to lower the Sherpa 40 or 50 feet into a crevasse and then haul him back up just to navigate it. “I remember this guy from the BBC was there filming, and we asked him ‘Please can you come help us,’ and he said, ‘No, I can’t, I’m filming, I’m from the BBC.’” The cameraman eventually gave them a liter of water, but that was it. The Sherpa died in the middle of the icefall overnight, Damian giving him CPR all the while.
Just two days later, an M17 helicopter crashed en-route to Everest Base Camp, and eight other people died. The Benegas Brothers tried to save lives there, too. The BBC cameraman was back, filming as they were trying to lift a helicopter to free a Sherpa pinned beneath it. He would not help then, either.
“I almost hit him,” said Damian. It was situations like these that kept him up nights. He was supposed to climb Lhotse after returning from Nuptse, but abandoned his attempt in light of the accident.
“When you’re a climber, you learn the importance of partnership,” he later said when asked him what climbing had taught him. “You give what you receive. You help when you can. Always.”
On what it’s like climbing with his brother, Damian said, “We both tend not to place pro that often, so we’re both on each other, trying to get each other to be safer, and we both get defensive. But at the same time, I know that when the shit hits the fan, we’re safe. I know how Willie can push it, how I can push it. We’ve known each other for 50 years,” he said, laughing. “I’ve climbed with good climbers, but it’s not the same. I don’t know how they’re going to react when shit hits the fan. Will they help themselves, help me, help others? With Willie, I know.”
Damian’s son, Rafael, was born just last week, two days before I spoke with him. He plans to dial his climbing back now that he has a son—something he’s done already as he’s gotten older anyways.
“But I still want to get out there, always,” he said. “I get the same feeling of gratitude doing second ascents or first ascents that aren’t as crazy, are unnamed, are more obscure, nowadays. Maybe it’s only 6,000 feet instead of 24,000. For me it’s just important to get out there. Of course I’ll dial it back in the objective danger,” he said. “But I’ll always get out there.”
Owen Clarke, 23, is a climber and writer based in Alabama. He enjoys Southern sandstone and fresh fish tacos. He is afraid of heights. Follow him on Instagram at @opops13.