On October 23, 2013, French mountaineers Pierre Labbre, Mathieu Maynadier, Jérôme Parar and Mathieu Detrie established a new impressive line on the South Face of Gaurishankar called, "Voyage au bout de la peine," (in English, "Going through all the trouble"). Now back in France, they took the time to tell to us about the expedition prior to the release this winter of the film about their adventure.
On September 11, after an uneventful trip to Kathmandu , the four of us find ourselves leisurely drinking a beer in a quiet restaurant far removed from Thamel's typical pell-mell. We're confident, everything seems ready, to the point that after spending only a day taking care of the remaining administrative formalities, we take a bus to Jagat, which is in the foothills of the Rolwaling Himal.
From the lodge we could see Gaurishankar's South Face, our full-time project for the next several weeks. From now until then, we have a little more than two weeks at the bottom of the valley to acclimatize before meeting the porters and the rest of the team in early October to set up base camp. The next three days are easygoing, in spite of battles here and there with the leeches, still thriving at this time of year!
After a few days of rest and hikes around the village, we decide to head towards Tashki Lapsa to acclimatize, a relatively easy mountain pass that provides access to the Khumbu and the village of Thame. This well-traveled path should allow us to easily climb to 5500 m in order to gradually acclimatize. Weighed down by our heavy packs and after spending the night at 4900 m high above Lake Thso Rolpa, we traverse to the chaotic glacier's right bank, which we need to ascend to reach the pass. At the edge of the glacier we have a hard time finding a way through the jumbled and often exposed terrain. After hiking for four hours with heavy packs we barely gain even one vertical meter in elevation! We come to understand what's going only after having "gone through the trouble," as we often say back home. We turn around to walk back to our first bivy for a second night at 4900 m.
Once back in Na, the forecast calls for bad weather, which throws a wrench in our plans to spend time at a higher altitude. Acclimatizing is clearly not going at all as originally intended. We decide to head back down to Beding to start an easier hike up to a pass at 5700 m elevation also known as "Melung La." This pass, located on the border between Nepal and Tibet, has been used for centuries by yak convoys… We should have no trouble making it there. From the pass, if all goes well, we will climb a bit on the flanks of Chekigo, a relatively easy 6200 m high peak.
After another night at 5000 m, we start the ascent. Once again, everything "goes as planned" as a thick fog surrounds us and in just a few minutes visibility drops to less than 10 meters! No worries, we have a GPS on hand… Oh yeah, that's right, the batteries are rusted! Back to the heavily crevassed glacier it is. We "go through the trouble," but this time, with the help of intuition, map reading, and a bit of luck, we reach the pass right when the clouds clear. The night goes well, and waking up to good weather the next morning is reassuring. We hike a few meters above camp, but soon the clouds and the original forecast for bad weather force us to turn around. By mid-day we are back in Beding, at Tenzi's house, where we decide to rest. During this time we wanted to hike up to and sleep at a higher elevation as well as ascend to at least 6000 m. In spite being in good shape and motivated, we have to meet up with the trekking agency in two days and do not have time to go back up into the mountains.
On the morning of September 29, our plan is to meet at the bridge at the start of the valley that leads to Gaurishankar's South Face. As "planned," we come accross the Sirdar and porters well up our valley from the bridge, all surprised to see us! They obviously don't know the area very well. They turn around and we all walk down to the bridge in question. From here, our view of the gorge fails to reveal any obvious and easy path. We set up camp and the four of us head off to scout out an approach to the South Face.
After the first few meters, we start hiking up steep grassy and brushy slopes, making forward progress using the legendary "khukuri" or Nepalese machete. Given the exposure on certain sections, where we have to climb up tufts of grass clinging to the rocks, we have no choice but to go back down to get our gear and ropes in order to fix lines along the most dangerous passages.
We leave the next day. After belaying the porters up a truly exposed section, the remainder the trek to base camp goes relatively well, in the pouring rain, with the help of the ropes fixed the day before. Our porters are truly unbelievable on this type of terrain, wearing sandals or even barefoot they are amazingly sure-footed. We reach base camp at nightfall, a comfortable spot in the ferns, sheltered by a large boulder, and located at 3800 m elevation. Everyone is exhausted. We had hoped to place base camp at a higher elevation, but the next day the porters refuse to continue and we completely understand why.
The next day, while the entire team heads back down, we take the time to settle in comfortably at base camp. The days that follow allow us to get some rest. In any case, it's cloudy and rainy every day. After four days of doing nothing, we decide to try to ascend to the bottom of the face that we had only been able to see during a two-minute clearing in the weather. The approach, a path winding through series of incredible waterfalls, is not easy to find. Once again we perfect our ability to move over steep terrain scattered with tufts of grass. We mark a GPS waypoint at the spot where we leave a gear cache, and then descend back down.
The weather is unstable to say the least, and the long days of waiting start to take their toll. In other words, more trouble! On October 10, our weather-router forecasts a sizeable window of good weather. We're golden! Then, as the window approaches, the forecast downgrades the prediction to only two days of good weather. We decide to use the two days to climb a bit on the route, to finish our acclimatization, and to leave some gear for the next attempt. After spending one night at the base of the wall, and we leave our bivy at five in the morning. The beginning of the route goes smoothly up to a steep section of ice that marks the beginning of the real difficulties. As the sun starts to heat up the south face the quality of the ice changes. In addition, we had not realized from our initial observations that the pitches would be so steep. As usual, the size and steepness of the Himalayas catches us by surprise. After an almost vertical pitch of tricky ice, we find a decent spot to bivy.
It's early, and in spite of the heat, we decide to continue climbing. Once at the top of the section of ice, we start climbing the steep snow slopes above. Cumulus clouds form quickly, and what begins as just a few snowflakes transforms into spindrift, forcing us to turn around. We are at 5800 m elevation and what remains, although more difficult than initially planned, looks pretty straightforward. We head back down to our bivy, 200 m below, and start to dig out a ledge for our two small tents. An early wakeup allows us to descend back to advanced base camp without having to deal with unwelcome falling projectiles. Although a bit disappointed to not have been able to climb higher, we were able to leave gear on the route, maximizing our chances for success on the next attempt.
Back at base camp, a shower and a good meal allow us to recover nicely. We have ten days left for another window of good weather, which still seems possible.
The days of bad weather start to blend together. During our five weeks in Nepal we have had only two full days of sunny skies… making it a bit hard to stay motivated! After countless card games, drinks, reading every book we have on hand, heated discussions on a variety of subjects, the days go by slowly. Still no good weather in sight… the four of us start to go stir-crazy!
One week from the end, our weather-router forecasts another possible window of good weather. We decide to leave as soon as possible, everything is ready. Since it is suppose to snow the day we head up to our high campb, we decide to bring a tent for shelter.
The alarm goes off at two in the morning to a strange silence. We open up the tent and it's snowing! Over 15 centimeters have fallen; there's no way we're heading up in these conditions. We decide to wait a bit, waking up at 3, then at 4, and then at 5 in the morning… With so much snow heading to our high camp really isn't an option. Morale in the tent hits its lowest point, we have lost all motivation. We decide to call our weather-router; with only six days left before the porters return it looks as if another attempt may not be possible. We descend the 1300 m back down to base camp. As usual, we're still going through the trouble! If any hope remains, we will have to head back up to our high camp the next day, and then start the ascent with the full understanding that even in the best circumstances the porters will show up on the day we plan to be on the summit. We decide to take the risk since the forecast calls for a period of good stable weather.
Heading back up to our high camp, waking up again at two in the morning… the skies are clear! We climb up the first section relatively light and move quickly. The ice and snow are in excellent condition. Early in the morning we reach the gear we had left from our first attempt. We sort gear to lighten the load as much as possible and then continue climbing. The following pitches are both serious and difficult: steep snow, inconsistent ice, rotten rock, and of course maximum exposure. Around four in the afternoon we reach the spot we thought could be used as a possible bivy. Perfect, the location is decent and after a little digging we set up the tent.
The next day the alarm goes off at four in the morning; we need to climb early given how hot it is during the day. Once we finish climbing the technical section of ice we reach the ramp, at the base of the beautiful summit pillar. Pitch after pitch goes down quickly. This section of the climb, that looked even skiable from afar, is actually a broad 60°/70° gully of solid blue calf-burning ice. The Himalaya never lets up. At around six in the evening, as the sun starts to set, we find the first decent bivy spot of the day. At 6500 m elevation, we quickly move through our now well-honed routine: dig out a ledge, melt snow, cook, eat and sleep.
For the remainder of the ascent our strategy is simple: climb as quickly as possible. The porters will be waiting for us the next day. We leave everything we can at our bivy and make a summit attempt carrying the least amount of extra gear possible: one thermos and one down jacket each. At five in the morning we start our ascent, the now mixed climbing becomes more complex. We then reach the bottom of the one section of climbing that had us worried: a steep thirty meter high wall of bulletproof rock. On our first try, the rock proves too complicated to protect, and the mixed climbing too difficult. To the right there is a crack and we take our chances. With a little aid and some tricky climbing we make it through. Fantastic! The last section proves more straightforward. A few pitches of snow later, we reach the pass and are bombarded by a frigid wind. The summit is so close that we can practically reach out and touch it!!! From this isolated peak almost 7000 m high, we can see most of the Himalaya; a truly special moment for us after all the effort and waiting. We spend almost an hour on the summit enjoying the views before reality catches up to us. It is already five in the afternoon and we need to start heading down.
From that point on everything happens so quickly. We pack up and leave base camp, and then make the trek back to Kathmandu to enjoy our first hot shower and the first restaurant meal in weeks!
To top it all off we miss our connecting flight on the return trip; one last delay at the end an expedition that really was worth all the trouble…
To learn more
- A preview of the movie about the expedition will be shown at the Grenoble Mountain Film Festival (Rencontres du Cinéma de Montagne) >> FR
- View the Mountaineering page on petzl.com >>