Following Invisible Footsteps Into the “Death Zone”: A 2011 Nuptse West Face Expedition Report by Fabrizio Zangrilli
The West Face of Nuptse (7,742 meters) in the Nepal Khumbu is absolutely treacherous. This massive 2,500-meter labyrinthine pyramid of snow and ice is so rife with objective dangers that Reinhold Messner once dubbed it a certain “death zone.” In fact, the West Face has only been climbed once before and it took two of climbing’s best to achieve what can rightfully be considered one of alpinism’s most radical ascents. In 1997 Slovenian climbers Tomaz Humar and Janez Jeglic climbed the wall in pure alpine-style over four days. Tragically, Jeglic was blown off the summit ridgeline, leaving Humar to find his way down alone. During the descent the mountain continued to try to kill Humar, slamming him with an avalanche. Frostbitten and depleted, Humar barely survived.
On November 5th, 2011, I approached the base of Nuptse’s West Face, suddenly aware of the huge footsteps in which I was following. I felt the presence of Jeglic and Humar—Humar also died in November 2009 on Langtang Lirang, Nepal—and realized that, as far as I knew, no other climbers had attempted the West Face since the Slovenian success and tragedy of 1997.
I crossed the easier section of the lower part of the Khumbu Glacier to reach the boulder-strewn section at the bottom of the wall, and my wandering thoughts abruptly ended. Huge boulders were careening from the upper left scree/rubble slope and falling 350 meters into the very same gully that I was now standing in. In my preparation for the climb, I had focused all of my research and attention on the danger of the actual face. Little did I know that even the walk to the base of the mountain would involve facing such peril. I had certainly underestimated the danger of this savage mountain. Time to focus.
Janez Jeglič was an amazing alpinist, with first ascents spanning the globe, from Patagonia to the French Alps, Slovenia and Himalaya. With his strong head and top fitness, he managed to help author, always in good style, some of the greatest routes such as the South Face of Cerro Torre and Psycho Vertical on Torre Egger. I had seen some of his routes in Patagonia, and the French and Julian Alps, first hand. They are intimidating, to say the least.
Tomaž Humar’s audacious balls-out solos and infectious personality helped him become an international star. Upon first meeting him I immediately felt his energy and enthusiasm for life. Tomaz was not afraid to try things that others felt were either impossible or crazy (or both!), and do it with an even crazier smile on his face.
For some, his very public rescue off of Nanga Parbat’s Rupal Face in 2005 will overshadow his tremendous achievements, but to me his contributions to mountaineering are extraordinary. Sadly, he died while soloing Langtang Lirang, Nepal, in November 2009.
On Nuptse’s West Face, Humar and Jeglic’s route (illustrated in the photo) weaves a line up the middle. Just look at the face. Constant objective hazards (avalanche, ice and rock fall) are not only unavoidable, but inevitable. Humar and Jeglic climbed in alpine-style, simul-soloing the entire route minus the icefall at the bottom. After their third bivy, the climbers faced -30° C temps at 7,100 meters, but managed to plow ahead, gaining about 100 meters/hour. Jeglic pushed ahead to the summit ridge—a massively long ridge that is part of the Everest massif—and reached the summit of Nuptse West II. He waited for Humar. When Humar arrived in deteriorating conditions and strong winds, Jeglic had begun the traverse toward Nuptse West I. Humar followed Jeglic’s tracks until he found Jeglic’s walkie-talkie.
It was late, almost 3 p.m., and Humar spent about 30 minutes on the ridge before coming to the painful decision to turn around. He reached his tent at the third bivy at midnight. While brewing up water, his stove exploded, singing his face and tearing the tent walls. The next day, he barely survived being struck by an avalanche. He eventually reached a point low enough on the face for another team member to come up from base camp and help him the rest of the way down.
It is one thing to attempt any climb alone; It is entirely another to undertake such an intense climb with a partner, experience such tragedy at the summit and have to find the physical and mental strength to find a way down entirely alone. When Humar finally recovered from the ordeal, he graded his route on the West Face at 2,500 meters 90° IV-V (50-70°, V).
Fifteen years ago, I first laid eyes on the West Face of Nuptse from a distance, and knew that I wanted to climb it. Over the years I have spent so much time thinking about the wall, and after many expeditions and ascents under my belt, I began to believe that it was my time to stop fantasizing about my dreams and start living them.
I wanted to solo the wall. In this “lunatic logic” I believed that climbing alone might be the safest for no other reason than it would be the fastest way up.
My research led me to believe that the route posed two pitches of major difficulty, one down low in the rock band to the left of the second serac, and then a pitch a bit above the last bivy, which would require rope-soloing a mixed, almost vertical, pitch. Everything in between was mellow: 45-60 degree snow/ice—terrain I generally move well on.
Tomaz and Janez chose not to stop at the bottom of the wall when they approached from Pumori. Instead, they climbed through the first serac and rock bands to bivy at 5,900 meters. From the north side of Lobuche, and then later, from Pumori, they had been acutely watching the West Face, gaining a sense of its rhythms. My approach was slightly different. I had been guiding around the Khumbu for the autumn season. The season had not been a good one, with two major snow events and unseasonably cold temperatures. Conditions were less than ideal. Judging by the winds, which grew continuously stronger, and the dropping temperatures, I wondered if my time had already run out before it even started.
My birthday, November 1st, proved to be a funny start to the expedition. I had walked alone from Chuckung after finishing a great guiding trip to Kyazo Ri & Island Peak, and found myself arriving late and without a room in Himalayan Lodge in Gorak Shep. The lodge owner and staff suggested I sleep in the dining room with the other trekkers who had also arrived too late to get a room. It was Halloween, and the next morning I would turn 39.
I took up the lodge owners’ generous offer and found myself curled up in my sleeping bag on the bench in the dining room along with what seemed like every trekker in the Khumbu, who had all set their sights on trekking to the top of Kala Patar, the hillside offering spectacular views of the West face of Nuptse, Everest and Lhotse. At 4 a.m. a rather amazing trekker—amazing because she had made it so far up the trail despite what seemed like many, many years without any apparent aerobic activity while consuming enormous quantities of calories (with alarming consequences to her figure)—sat on me. It was dark, I don’t blame her, but it was not exactly how I’d expected to turn 39. All of the other roomless trekkers woke while I screamed in pain and surprise. Naively I thought the climbing would be the only hazard….
I spent three days (now with a room) living in the lodge, with a direct view to the West Face, trying to spot any period of relative calm (from the incessant avalanching and rock fall) on the wall. To my dismay, I realized that there was no obvious pattern, only lots of rockfall and avalanche. For three days, I sat and stared, while the kitchen staff, I think, began to wonder if I would ever leave. Meanwhile, my desire to climb the face only grew.
During my solo approach to the wall, I began to appreciate the looks and comments from the Everest Base Camp trekkers that had seen me depart from the well-worn trail to a sea of loose unmarked boulders as I neared the ominous-looking face. Were these invisible footsteps too big to fill?
I bivied on the rocks just 50 meters from the face. The bulging moon crested over the top of the wall early in the night, adding a certain magic to the experience of being there alone. I felt small within the realization of the enormity of what I was trying, and it made me realize how lucky I was to be there. The lack of a tent not only exposed me to the extreme cold but also made me conscious of every small sluff or bit of rockfall. I finally settled in and fell asleep, content I was doing something I had dreamed of for so long.
My hope had been that the season’s early snowfall would work to my advantage by filling in some of the crevasses down low on the face. Also, since the upper sections were quite steep, the extra snow probably (hopefully) would not hold.
My first premise turned out to be correct, and I started the initial serac band early on November 6th, finding it hard primarily because it was so cold. Pumped with fear-induced adrenaline, I climbed very quickly but also climbed very sloppily. The serac, which is passed on the very left-hand side, very close to the rock, is so featured from deterioration that I found it easy even through a vertical section. I was grateful that I had decided to climb in my more curved tools, the X-Dream. While not traditional for alpinism, these tools had definitely been the correct choice, and I hooked my way, with light taps occasionally to the top of the tool for added security, in short time.
The climbing involved pushing the constant fear to the back of my mind. I walked to the crest of the serac band and onto the glacier that separated me from the rock band/gulley. This was the section that—as I had watched from Gorak Shep last week—had been flushed everyday by avalanche.
I opted for what was the safest path on the glacier surface. This entailed passing the three major crevasses on the jumble of broken ice to the left. I realized that the broken jumble could only have come from one place—above. The realization that nothing, absolutely nothing, up here was safe … was somehow comforting. I no longer needed to try and find a safe place as, quite simply, one did not exist. My only decision was whether I wanted to go up or down. The beauty of Alpinism is that often times life is reduced to these simple, yet heavy questions. Up or down? Left or right? Stop or go? These are questions that may be simply answered, but they are complicated by the sheer immensity of the consequence of choosing badly. My decision was to move on, only stopping when I reached the “bergshrund” of the second serac.
My leftward course through the glacier gave me a very clear view to the “hidden” gulley through the rock band. Compacted snow and the moderate 50-degree angle allowed me quick passage. I had hoped that my firm decision to continue up the wall earlier would have allowed me to climb with more clarity, patience and fluidity. Swing, move, swing, move, swing, move. Repeat ad infinitum through the cracks in the avalanche-polished rock.
Two-hundred meters of concrete ice was all that separated me from safety, to another bergshrund. At this point, I decided that safety was a greater priority than descending. After spending so much time under the multiple seracs looming above, I was fried and longed to reach an oasis from the anxiety of the climbing in the form of a bivy. Gaining the 5,900-meter bivy was far from easy. Everything felt ominous and overwhelming, and even the climbing on the steep, rock-hard ice sapped me.
I passed two yellow pieces of tat in the rock gulley that only Humar could have left on his lonely descent 14 years ago. On his descent, Humar was knocked off the wall by an avalanche that funneled through the rock gulley. He was lucky to survive what would prove to be the final blow from the wall that he and Jeglic had fought to master. Reflecting on the decisions that I’d made thus far and their potential consequences, I wondered yet again whether the footsteps in which I was following were, indeed, too great to fill.
I made my way to the base of the 50-degree wall that leads to the middle of the face at 5,950 meters and then to the upper slopes. I was tired and had “stopped enjoying myself.” I laughed as I thought back to a quote I overhead the month prior on Island Peak. At around 2:30 am, a client, on another trip, gave his reason for turning back early: “I was just not enjoying myself anymore!”
I was at the base of the 50-degree wall in the middle of massive, savage Nuptse and as I looked up at the upper slopes, “not enjoying myself” was not a very good reason to turn around. Alpinism is about smiling through adversity, realizing that you have put yourself in the position to potentially suffer. Therefore, suffering is not a valid reason to stop.
Oddly, though I was definitely not enjoying myself, at the same time, I had never been more pleased with myself. I was more engaged with what I was doing and proud of what I was trying than ever before.
Unfortunately, I was at the same time coming to the realization that continuing on with the ascent would be pointless at best. Sugar snow now sat a meter deep over the lower-angled wall. Gaining the steeper sections was not a physical reality for me, never mind what psychological barriers I would have to overcome. Looking down from my vantage point, 950 meters up the wall, I was happy to have tried, but experience and prudence is what has kept me alive after all these years in the mountains. I had done my best, but conditions were out of my control. I was making the right decision. Going up was not possible, so I descended.
I will return to the alluring, engaging puzzle of Nuptse in the autumn of 2012. I reflect on the steps I took in November 2011 and see potential for new strategies. Many of the questions that I had before this attempt have now been answered. Conditions are what they are and I expect there will be different obstacles during my next attempt but that is all part of the game. Along the way, the biggest obstacles I will face will be in my mind. Can I fill those giant shoes of Jeglic and Humar? Can I follow in those footsteps? Fifteen years is a long time to dream about an initial attempt. How long will it take to finally realize my dream?
Fabrizio Zangrilli is a CAMP and Cassin sponsored Alpinist and Guide. He spends most of his time in Nepal and calls Boulder, CO home for those few weeks he is stateside in any given year.