Summit's Eve on Annapurna

The Arduous Days Before the First Summit Ever of an 8,000 Meter Peak
Gorp.com
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June 1: Camp IV

WHY had they given up? We could not understand it. Lachenal, who was moving at a fair pace and appeared to be going much more easily than during the last few days, was the first up the avalanche cone and across the couloir. It was the third time I had been over this route and I knew it well by now, but again as I went to meet them I found it both difficult and dangerous. On the little platform beneath the ice wall where we had left a fixed rope, we came upon Terray and Ribuffat.

"What's happened?" I asked Terray.

He seemed disheartened. "We'd have been crazy to go on. What with the wind and this hellish snow it took us more than seven hours yesterday to get from Camp III to Camp IV."

"Did you find the tent?"

"Sure, but we had to straighten the poles which had been bent over by the avalanche. We got the other tent up in a tearing wind. Ribuffat felt his feet beginning to freeze."

"I thought I'd had it," put in Gaston. "Fortunately, Lionel rubbed me and flogged me with an end of rope, and at last got the blood circulating again."

"This morning," Terray went on, "the cold was worse than in Canada and the wind even stronger. I figured it out like this: if yesterday, when we were quite fit, we only covered just over a thousand feet in seven hours, we wouldn't have a hope of climbing the last four thousand feet under present conditions. I know we must do all we can, up to the limit, but I'm beginning to have doubts about our success."

Although Lachenal and I protested vigorously, the other two did not seem to be affected by our enthusiasm. Terray, for all his strength, had only just managed to cope with the snow (which covered the tracks afresh every day) and the slopes that had to be mastered yard by yard, and with the deterioration of mind and body brought on by altitude. But he did not care to dwell on all these obstacles he had no wish to undermine our solid morale.

"We're going up," I said without the least hesitation. "When we come down it'll mean the top's been reached it's all or nothing."

And I felt that Lachenal was as determined as myself. The other two wished us good luck, but I read doubt in their faces. Now it was up to us.

We set to on the slope; Sarki, Ang-Tharkey, Lachenal and myself took it in turns to go ahead to improve the tracks fortunately left by Terray and Ribuffat on their way down. The going wasn't too bad, but all the same Ang-Tharkey was amazed at the difficulty of the ground.

Pansy had already told him that neither on Kanchenjunga nor on Everest had they ever struggled with such difficult terrain. It was the first time these Sherpas had done any climbing on ice, and been obliged to get up vertical walls. But all went well, we pushed on steadily, and found the going much easier than the previous times, which showed just how vital acclimatization is on Himalayan expeditions. It was now burning hot, and by the time we reached Camp III we were sweating. What a truly magnificent camp this was, lost in the very heart of the mountains in a tiny snowblocked crevasse! How snug and comfortable it appeared!

We had to conserve our strength: There would be no going farther today. Most of the time we just lay in our sacks, and the Sherpas handed us our meals through the entrance of the other tent. The weather was fine. This time everything was in our favor and we would get to the top.

It took the Sherpas a long time to make tea because of the decreased heating power of the stoves at this height. A few cigarettes, followed by the ration of pills, which both Sahibs and Sherpas obediently swallowed, and before dark everybody at Camp III was already asleep.

In the morning we waited placidly for the sun, since the day's program consisted of going only as far as Camp IV, which would take us barely four hours. But we should also have to move that camp again and re-pitch it right on the Sickle glacier. We each set about getting our things ready, and I took a few movie shots. Down below, the plateau on which Camp II was pitched appeared to have become a regular village. Big valley tents and high-altitude tents stood side by side and it looked altogether like an advanced Base Camp.

"Lionel and Gaston must be resting now," said Lachenal.

We decided to move off, taking advantage of the relatively good state of the snow, and we reached the site of Camp IV more rapidly than we had expected. On the way I took more movie shots, in particular of the bergschrund by the plateau on which the camp was situated. The weather was still very fine. Ang-Tharkey and Sarki had gone splendidly, one of them on Lachenal's rope, the other on mine. It was still early and we should therefore be able to move Camp IV right up on the Sickle glacier. We were pleased about this, for beyond this camp there would be no further technical difficulties to keep us back. We quickly took down one tent, which we ourselves would be carrying, as well as food and equipment.

"In less than an hour we ought to be up the big ice slope leading to the edge of the Sickle," I said to Lachenal, "it's not all that long." Ang-Tharkey and Sarki would come back to the present camp where we were leaving the other tent. The following morning they would have to dismantle it and carry it up to the new Camp IV. From there we would start out for the next one Camp V.

Laden like donkeys, we sank up to our waists in new snow on the first few yards of the great ice slope. But shortly there was far less snow, and very soon only a thin layer of loose snow lying on ice. The angle was comparable with that of the steepest Alpine slopes. Now and again we cut a few steps, but most of the time we just went straight up on our crampons though cramponing at this height was not exactly restful and we puffed away like steam-engines.

The Sherpas were not at all happy. They were not expert on this sort of ground, but as they were afraid of getting left behind they made all possible speed. After a couple of hundred yards of this exhausting work we came to the edge of the Sickle. Lachenal, who was leading, had a look around up there, and I did the same down below. Our choice fell upon an inviting site at the base of a serac just where we had emerged from the ice slope. It was an ideal place, protected from the wind both by the serac itself and by a little ice ridge which formed a natural screen. Lachenal was delighted:

"Once we've fixed things up we'll be as snug as in my own little chalet at Chamonix."

We set to work at once and the tent was soon in position. As it was already late afternoon I packed Ang-Tharkey and Sarki off to the lower camp, none too happy at the prospect of going down such a difficult slope. But I knew that Ang-Tharkey would not hesitate to cut extra steps and, if necessary, to make a staircase the whole way.

"Good night, sir!"

We shook hands warmly and our two Sherpas disappeared down the slope. Meanwhile we arranged our shelter. Mist closed around us and an icy wind got up, stinging our faces with blown snow. Neither of us had much appetite, but we forced ourselves to eat, and when the tea was ready I set out in a row the collection of pills that Oudot had strictly ordered us to swallow. For all Lachenal's assertions, we were only relatively comfortable. We put our boots into our sleeping-bags to prevent them from freezing, and settled ourselves in for an excellent night.

View: Drawing of climbing route


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 20 Nov 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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