Bhagirathi III: Extreme Alpinism in the Garhwal HimalayasFriday, November 11, 2016
Video: Yannick Boissenot
On a snowy afternoon, I pushed open the door of a tea-house in Chamonix to share a drink with my friends Damien and Martin. They both had spent the previous month in the valley while I was off having a lot of fun in Patagonia. They shared their willingness to get some quality climbs in the Indian Himalayas. They were hungry for adventure and despite the fact that I had barely made it home the previous day I was psyched to leave that same spring for another trip. Home to mythical mountains such as Shivling, Thalay Sagar, Meru and Bhagirathi, the Gangotri range offered one of the best playgrounds in the world, and it was very hard to pick a mountain.
Fanny, Damien's wife, also joined the conversation and revealed to us that the Bhagirathi III Scottish Pillar was one of her dreams. The west face of Bhagirathi III is one of a kind, capped by huge overhangs of the worst possible quality rock. The obvious pillar on the left side of the face however, seemed to offer a more appealing option. We all liked the beauty of this pillar, which was opened in 1984 by four Catalan climbers. It also had an inspiring name, Estrella Impossible (Impossible Star). Very quickly the Tomasi's organizing machine was in full swing and soon we were confronted with the complicated Indian bureaucracy. Rajesh Negi of Himalaya Hikes helped us a big deal and organized our trip with mastery. Sebastien Corret joined our team, and though he was still recovering from a broken ankle he made a strong effort to be ready in time.
On April 26, we swiftly landed in Delhi to be greeted by Rajesh. Another important point we all feared about India was the possibility of being shut down by stomach illness. I had a hard time pushing myself to eat anything other than chips and drinking Coca-Cola. Finally, I opened the door to chicken, which I'm fond of, but quickly realized we were going to a region where, for religious reasons, meat is not part of the diet. Needless to say alcohol was also prohibited. Also strictly forbidden was the use of a SAT phone, which was a bummer, because I never go climbing in mountains without any idea of how the weather is going to be. Way to go for a healthy trip. I just hoped there wouldn’t be any shortage of climbing!
Two days by bus and two more of trekking brought us to Nandavan— an immaculate grass field at the base of Bhagirathi—where we could enjoy a stunning view over Shivling. Not a bad place to spend a few weeks away from beer and burgers. The next day, upon our arrival at base camp we began ferrying loads to the advanced base camp up a moraine at 5000meters. We descended before a storm that lasted all night. One thing we all cared about was to take advantage of the first possible chance to get the climb done, but obviously we also cared about the importance of getting through a solid acclimatization progress. Somehow after only a week of arrival at base camp, we decided we were ready for a go.
Having heard rumors of people barely seeing any good weather for several weeks, after waking up for a second straight day of perfect weather, we decided to move. Unbeknownst to us we were packing for a serious kick in the ass once passed 5500 meters, but we were too motivated for action. We decided to use a full day only to carry all the gear to the base of the pillar and then descend to sleep a night at base camp … then go for it the 9th of May. After a night at advanced base camp, we moved all of our gear to the base of the Pillar, carrying roughly 60 kg of gas, food and gear. We decided the route didn't require any portaledge, so instead we took some special wall tents. Well aware of the possibility of not finding a place to pitch a tent, we took a 100-meter static rope, which would allow us to fix a few pitches and descend to sleep at a previous bivy spot. It wasn't the recipe for a fast ascent, but our lack of acclimatization, and the fact that the fastest of the previous three ascents took eight bivies, pushed us to take the climb very seriously.
The first technical pitch had one of my guys turning back down, so I took an alternate start to the left. After 15 meters of difficult mixed climbing and a few aid moves on what turned out to be the lower part of the second pitch, I finally could reach a belay low on my right with a pendulum. The mountain showed us that we would succeed only a good fight and probably amid a lot of suffering. We were ready for the challenge and happy to have a serious obstacle to overcome. We were grateful also, for the sunny weather, which allowed us to climb without jackets. Little did we know we wouldn't be enjoying any sun in the oncoming days.
The egg-shell-like wall on our right formed convective clouds. Always a bit worried about the possibility of getting stuck in a storm, we tried to concentrate simply on the next challenge. Two days later we were back at the base of the pillar reaching our high-point, courtesy of a couple ropes we left fixed a few days earlier. The second and third pitch tested Damien's aid-climbing ability. He aided up a seam trying hard not to rip his protection. The hard aid-climbing demanded a lot of time, so Martin and I jumared and hauled the two bags. We only had to climb six pitches, but somehow it took the rest of the day. We could feel the altitude, plus the bags felt pretty heavy … but we were going up. Seb on the lead even enjoyed some quality free climbing.
On the last pitch below the small nevi, where we had hoped to find a suitable bivy spot, I had to do some creative rope rigging to lower myself and the bags while avoiding a massive swing, all while it was getting dark. Frustrated and tired, I finally made my way to the belay. The guys chopped two small ledges on which our tents didn’t fit. It was snowing, and Seb and Martin had a hard time pitching the tent. We couldn't get the stove to work out in the bad weather, so we shared a single meal, what remained of a water bottle, and went to sleep. The following morning with blue skies and cold weather, it was time to climb.
Martin pulled me out of the tent.
"You're on belay," he said, before I even had a look at the pitches above.
I started dry-tooling my way up snowy slabs toward a massive beautiful corner. At some point I slipped on my rock-shoes, but my feet froze immediately. I continued alternating awesome mixed-climbing and aid, up beautiful cracks. The sun finally touched the wall, only to disappear a few minutes later. I gave Martin the lead. He aided cracks, which could have been very nice to free-climb in warmer weather. Once again we had the feeling that there was nothing else to do other than fight our way up, and Martin (like the rest of us) fought for every meter. A couple of hours later and after another snowfall, I took back the lead and headed up a steep wall that offered more aid climbing followed by tenuous mixed-climbing on rocks covered in sugar snow. I fixed a rope length and descended to the previous belay were the guys crafted a couple of ledges in the snow.
After another bad weather night, we packed our damp sleeping bags and started up toward the upper wall, an overhanging 150-meter of rock that defended the access to what looked like easier terrain. Damien and Seb took care of the climbing but the difficulties and crappy weather in the afternoon didn't made progress easy. It didn't take long before we decided to fix as many meters of climbing we could and bivy. After four hard fought pitches they descended to the snow patch on which, during most of the afternoon, Martin and I worked on customizing a couple of ledges for our tents. It snowed most of the night but this time at least we slept well fed.
The following morning began with a 100-meter, overhanging jumar at 6000 meters. As I jumared up the rope I marveled at the beauty and exposure of those few overhanging pitches. Dangling meters away from the wall and several hundred meters above the ground on a tattered rope, I began questioning my future commitment to this kind of climbing. Once I made it to the belay and saw what remained of the pillar I was psyched again. Martin climbed steadily up an A2 pitch, which demanded cleaning a frozen crack. I took the lead back for a vertical, slabby wall that guarded the upper shale band. I wore my crampons and grabbed my tools and went for a long, time-consuming dry-tooling mission. A lot of tiny hooking, smearing, a pendulum, a whipper (when one of the two pieces of gear I placed for the pendulum failed to hold my weight) an overhanging chimney, and a crazy rig for the guys who had to follow the long traversing pitch with the bags and finally we could see the top of the pillar. The transition from the perfect granite to the shitty shale band was brutal. The crampons scratched without purpose, there was no protection and complicated route-finding. Another intense snow shower didn't help our situation, but fortunately that evening the skies cleared early. To find a suitable belay was complicated to say the least.
After a close call, when I ripped most of a belay station and dislodged a large boulder while aggressive testing the anchor, we finally called it a day. We stopped a meter away from the edge of the overhanging west face on our right. I crafted a small seat in the shale band—the rock being so loose that it was possible to literally use the tools for something that reminded me more gardening than chopping a bivy ledge. We weren't in an overly bad position, but the thought of a full day on terrain very much like the one where we spent the last few hours, only to gain some 50 meters, was not very exciting. At this point pain and tension were all we could expect—the price to pay for success on this difficult wall.
Before leaving the belay we had to decide what to do with the bags we were struggling to drag behind us. The terrain was clearly not made for hauling. Climbing with an extra pig was overwhelming and given the many traverses on black ice and shale rock, not so safe. We decided to drop a big bag containing things we didn't need any further. We were positive it would land at the base and possibly intact. None of us had ever tried such a manoeuver, but I rationalized it from the several times I’d read of bags getting dropped. So we launched the pig and after what felt like an awkwardly long time I saw with pleasure the bag rolling down the snow slope at the base of the west face. Martin led us left, hoping to find safer terrain. With only a few ice axes for the four of us, traverses were tricky, but the climbing was a tiny bit safer that the previous day, fortunately, because a couple of sections were quite steep. A couple of nerve-wracking pitches followed. Martin led past a bulge and we were relieved to discover that a 55-degree ice slope remained between the top and us. The black ice covered with powder provided a sting in the tail. We reached the top at 5 p.m. and began the descent soon after.
After several rappels and more issues with stuck ropes, a long traverse on deep slushy snow took us to the point when we really wanted a nice place to sleep. A beautiful alcove well placed under an overhang provided a room with a view and after a few minutes we fell asleep. The following morning we walked four hours until we met the girls, Gadju the L.O. and the Denis the cook. They gave us food and water, and only then did we start to realize what we went through—the roller coaster journey of this entire trip. We completed our project only two weeks within our arrival at base camp, which was cool, because it felt like a month had passed since we arrived. We learned many things that will be valuable for the big challenges that lie ahead.
The following day, I walked three hours to the base of the west face. I was struck when I discovered what remained of an empty haul bag at the base of the face. I screamed, angry for having even thought for a second that the bag would have survived the 900-meter free fall and subsequent landing. Adamant to leave the mountain clean, I spent the remaining morning climbing up the 40-degree slope in running shoes, to the base of the dangerous face (we witnessed avalanches and rockfall on a daily basis). I was surprised to find all of the content littered on the frozen snow. I was delighted to be able to retrieve almost everything, from the caps of the ice screws to the tents. We lost only a hammer and a couple of cams and etriers. What we didn’t lose is a chance to learn another lesson.
Thank you India.