Himalaya Alpine-Style—Ten Years On

Posted on: July 1, 2005


[Left] The book that inspired a generation; Himilaya Alpine-Style, by Andy Fanshaws and Stephen Venables. [Right] The lighter side of alpine style: Athol Whimp at 6750 meters on a seven-day ascent of the Japanese route Wall of Shadows, north face of Jannu (7710m), 2000. Whimp and Andrew Lindblade had attempted the north face direct, but were nearly done in by rockfall. They left their equipment on this bivouac, then endured a windswept summit ridge, electrical storm and open bivy with temperatures to -20 degrees before reaching the summit. and David Swift Andrew Lindblade

I love deadlines. There is something invigorating about that adrenaline rush as you notch up the urgency and race to the finish—or should I say the top? Producing a book feels as demanding as any great climb, and however carefully you try to plan it, the final push always turns out longer and harder than you expected. That, anyway, was the case with Himalaya Alpine-Style, the book I was hurrying to complete this month ten years ago. I spent eighteen-hour days hammering out text in the morning, polishing in the afternoon and then sitting up most of the night drawing maps and topos, tracing slides, allocating page space and writing captions, so that by morning a new batch of material was ready to be couriered off to the editor and designer. They were great days, and I wouldn't have missed them for anything, but it did feel good when I finally typed in the last sentence of the introduction, gave the opening contents and credits a final check, added a note to the designer suggesting he reverse them out across Mike Kennedy's glorious double spread of Broad Peak's Chinese side, pressed "Save" one last time, then put the whole thing to bed.

Ten years on, with the book still in print, seems a good time to look at what Himalaya Alpine-Style tried to say about Himalayan climbing and at what has happened since the book was published. The concept, like the subject matter, was bold: a sort of Himalayan super tick list, inspired by such seminal works as Pit Schubert's In Fels und Eis, Ken Wilson's British Hard Rock and Al Steck and Steve Roper's Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. Except the idea was a bit more subtle than that, because no one was going to try to tick all forty Himalayan routes when there are so many new peaks and routes still waiting to be explored. It was more a celebration of past achievements, with a bit of gentle pointing at future possibilities. That said, I've been amazed to see to see how many of the routes have become increasingly popular. And if not specific routes, then particular mountains and massifs seem to have become more firmly embedded in climbers' consciousnesses. So, as well as perhaps encouraging bold pioneers to raise their game, the book has also reinforced the essentially sheeplike nature of the mountaineering herd—we tend to follow rather than lead.

First, a word about the origins of the book, because I, too, am a sheep and it was not my idea. It all started with a hugely enthusiastic, energetic, optimistic young British climber named Andy Fanshawe. During his first Himalayan trip in 1986, aged just twenty-three, Andy led a group of friends on the first traverse of Chogolisa, above the Baltoro in Pakistan's Karakoram. (Some of the team then went on to climb Broad Peak.) Two years later he made the first ascent of the west top of Menlungtse, in Tibet, in a rapid, opportunistic dash to the summit, enlisting at the last moment the help of expedition messenger boy, Alan Hinkes, after the expedition's elders—Chris Bonington, David Breashears and Steve Shea—had retired to base camp through a mixture of age, altitude and sensible caution.

The bold panache of those two climbs—Chogolisa and Menlungtse West—was the meat of Andy's first book, Coming Through. Searching hungrily for new material, he then began to plan a book on British rock climbing—at which point the self-appointed godfather of British mountain publishing, Ken Wilson, intervened. "What you should be doing, young lad," Ken barked, "is leaving this domestic stuff to the rock jocks and getting yourself stuck in a big book about Himalayan climbing." And so Himalaya Alpine-Style was born.

Andy threw himself at the project with astonishing energy, listing routes, researching history, writing a good deal of the draft text and securing the vital support of the climbers around the world who would come to provide essential photos. Ever optimistic, he hoped to have the whole thing wrapped up before leaving for a summer 1992 attempt on the North Ridge of K2. But on a blustery weekend that March, a few days before his twenty-ninth birthday, just as he was setting up a belay on the famous winter playground of Lochnagar in the Scottish Highlands, a blast of wind caught him off balance, flinging him down the mountain. He took a huge, battering fall and died soon after the rescuers reached him. After the funeral his widow, Caroline, asked if I would complete the book.

It was hard taking over someone else's pet project. The situation wasn't helped when Tim Hely-Hutchinson, the bullish head of Headline Plc., suddenly bought the publishing house, Hodder and Stoughton. I had last seen Tim twenty years earlier as a callow scribbler for the student rag at Oxford; now here he was buying up the venerable company that had led the field in mountain publishing ever since it acquired the rights to the 1933 Everest Expedition. And our asset-stripping Mr. HH didn't think much of mountains. New commissions in the pipeline were cancelled; existing mountain contracts, Andy's book included, were put on the "flush through" list, to be printed and sold off as quickly as possible.

Corporate constipation, however, blocked the flushing system. I didn't get the definite go-ahead to complete the book until 1994, with German, French, Japanese, Italian and American co-editions guaranteeing the cash for a large-format, full-color production. Now it was all up to me. Well—me and a fantastic team headed by Maggie Body, who had been editing mountain books for Hodder since she took on Eric Shipton's last book in the 1960s. She would keep a close eye on the text, while the designer, Graham Webb, would more or less carry out my intentions for the layout. (He insisted on a wider leading in the text, a design that looks elegant, but that resulted in smaller picture sizes than I had planned). Also, in an unofficial capacity, there was the godfather, Ken Wilson, urging me to celebrate all that was bold and "buccaneering" in lightweight, alpine-style mountaineering. "This is what the modern world craves," he enthused, "just like Columbus in the fifteenth century. I mean, where would we all be if Columbus had just sat around dithering in Cadiz Harbor?"

Stirring, provocative stuff, from the man who had championed the alpine-style renaissance of the 1970s and '80s. And this was the tradition in which I had been brought up. My first expedition, to Afghanistan, was in 1977, just two years after the bumper year of '75—the summer of the Renshaw-Tasker route on Dunagiri and the Habeler-Messner unroped race up and down Gasherbrum I. Like most of my contemporaries, I had been inspired by that "buccaneering" spirit as I watched those four climbers and many others—Boardman, Scott, Beghin, Roskelley, McIntyre, Kurtyka, Bonington, Bohigas, Lucas (to name but a few obvious stars)—show what was possible with fairly limited means on some very big mountains.

All very well, but I could not agree unequivocally with my uncompromising British contemporary Alex McIntyre, who died on Annapurna in 1982, that "style was everything," even though I included his quotation in the book, as Andy had intended. What about the mountain itself, regardless of how it was climbed? What about the importance of coming back alive? And what about history? "Alpine style" did not arrive from nowhere in 1975. Mummery tried it on Nanga Parbat in 1895, Alexander Kellas made a whole string of solo and lightweight Himalayan ascents during the early twentieth century, and Eric Shipton's 1935 Everest Reconnaissance team climbed more than thirty peaks in Tibet and Sikkim, on the hoof, never bothering to mention style, just getting on quietly and efficiently with the job.

So, I was determined that this book should not write earlier generations out of the story. For instance, even though a team of eight climbers had sieged Nanda Devi's 1936 route with a succession of moderately well-stocked camps, I thought that their story should be included. How many modern climbers, I wondered, could emulate Tilman, Houston, Odell and the rest of that Anglo-American band of brothers, moving up and down their long, exposed route, without the help of fixed ropes, finally cutting loose from the top camp to navigate tricky, unknown ground to the summit?

Nanda Devi also went in—simply because it's a great, beautiful, iconic mountain. (Even though its Sanctuary is out of bounds to foreigners, one day I am sure it will open again.) Likewise most of the prestigious 8000ers that dominate the northern skylines of Nepal and Pakistan. Economic constraints dictated a limit of forty chapters, so the hardest bit was deciding ruthlessly what to leave out. I jettisoned Andy's original idea of including outliers west and east of the main Himalayan chain and limited the scope to the Karakoram and Himalaya, starting with Rakaposhi in the west and ending with Kangchenjunga in the east. I then began arranging peaks in groups, allowing for cross-reference between them—big peaks around the Baltoro, Gangotri summits, Menlungtse and Gaurishankar, Annapurna and Singu Chuli and so on. I deliberately avoided obscure, esoteric areas, concentrating instead on regions that were already familiar to the Himalayan fraternity, reinforcing the herd instinct. (If you want to go exploring, great, but don't expect Andy and me to hand it all to you: go and find your own mountain to climb!)

The book, then, was intended to celebrate what had happened so far in a century of Himalayan mountaineering—part history, part guidebook, part photo orgy—structured around forty peaks. Mindful of Andy's original intentions, I included some of the most daring, flamboyant achievements of our near contemporaries, such as the Bohigas/Lucas route on the south face of Annapurna, the Anglo-Polish line on the south face of Changabang and the Troillet/Loretan speed ascent of the Japanese/Hornbein couloirs on the north face of Everest—all of which were climbed in single, bold, uncompromising pushes and which represented the cutting edge of late twentieth-century Himalayan climbing.

But there were also routes that Andy and I thought were just stunning, regardless of what the style police might think. So we included the first-ascent route up the west face of Gaurishankar, where John Roskelley led almost every one of the sixty or so pitches, fixing ropes nearly all the way to the summit. "Look at this route," we said. "Isn't it fantastic? And, by the way, perhaps you might, if you are feeling brave, like to go and tackle it without fixed ropes."

The whole thing was conceived deliberately as a book by climbers, for climbers, with a fairly elitist agenda. I have no problem with elitism—in fact I'm all for it. However, the book did actually have to sell. There had to be something in it for everyone, even if that something was aspirational. And in any case, Himalayan climbing isn't just about risking your neck on very, very hard climbs. So, we included the comparatively straightforward normal route up Cho Oyu (nothing "normal," anyway, about Herbert Tichy's low-key first ascent). On Ama Dablam, we twinned the unrepeated Buhler/Kennedy route on the northeast face with the increasingly popular normal route up the Southwest Ridge, even though the fixed ropes on that line now make any genuine alpine-style ascent impossible.

In the agonizing selection process, the hardest job of all was deciding which photos to include. Thanks mainly to Andy's persuasive groundwork, I had a wealth of stunning original transparencies from the likes of Greg Child, David Breashears, Doug Scott, Marko Prezelj, Kurt Albert, John Porter, Galen Rowell, John Roskelley, John Cleare, Chris Bonington, Mike Kennedy... lent for months at a time, along with copious captions and information, on the understanding that any photos actually published in the book would be rewarded with a derisorily small payment. The international celebs came up trumps, giving generously of their time and expertise. But it was also rewarding to discover less well-known photographers, such as Alex McNab, an oil executive who does the odd Himalayan climb in his spare time and takes stunning pictures.

We finally finished the design in the spring of 1995, and the book appeared early in 1996—Hodder and Stoughton's last mountain book, ending a tradition that had run for sixty-three years. Sales were sufficiently good to justify a reprint (with a new dust jacket, minor corrections and improved layout on the final chapter), and the reviews were almost universally favorable. Andy's widow, Caroline, and I were particularly thrilled to get a glowing review by Alex Lowe in The American Alpine Journal; winning the Grand Prize at Banff was also most welcome.

And the book's effect? Well, perhaps it was naive of me, but I underestimated the extent to which the book would become something of a tick list. Or perhaps I am being disingenuous, because in 1995 commercial Himalayan expeditions had just started to take off, and organized ascents of the so-called normal routes on Cho Oyu and Broad Peak were becoming commonplace. Likewise Ama Dablam. So I suppose I was jumping on that commercial bandwagon by including these routes in the book—after all, wealthy, guided businessmen were far more likely to buy the book than penniless, hard-core Himalayan nutcases!

More surprising has been the way some less-normal routes have begun to acquire tick status. For instance, the stunning German line up the Trango Tower, Eternal Flame, authored by Kurt Albert, Wolfgang Gullich and company, has now had at least five ascents, though nearly all the aid used on the first ascent remains to go free. The Northwest Ridge of Gasherbrum IV has had at least three repeat attempts, one—in 1999—successful. The fantastic East Ridge of Shivling was repeated in the year of the book's publication. Even the Golden Pillar of Spantik—arguably the most beautiful, difficult, adventurous Karakoram ascent of the 1980s—has been repeated.

This trend reminds me of the Alps in the 1940s, when repeat ascents of prestigious testpieces such as the Walker Spur or the Eigerwand were keenly sought. For first ascensionists, it's gratifying to have people repeat your route (as long as they struggle a bit) and give it a certain classic status. And if they have gone expensively all the way to Central Asia to do it, the satisfaction is all the sweeter. (I felt quite chuffed recently when a team repeated the South Ridge of Kusum Kanguru in Sola Khumbu—a lovely route, rejected reluctantly from the book, that I climbed with Brian Davidson and Dick Renshaw in 1991).

The interesting aspect is how some of these repeats have been made. The Korean team on Gasherbrum IV, for instance, employed more people and more rope than the Australian-American team had done in 1984. On Shivling, by contrast, in 1996 John Bouchard and Mark Richey upped the ante, by doing in five days what in 1981 had taken Doug Scott and Co. thirteen. How did they do it? Well, I wasn't there, but I think they took a lot less luggage. That tactic enabled them to go in the purest, single-push alpine style, rather than temporarily fixing harder sections as Scott's team had done in their capsule-style ascent. And, by all accounts, they were fit buggers (I once saw Bouchard working out in a gym—not a pretty sight). New, lighter gear must have helped—all those little details that help you move faster and more confidently in steep places. But I suspect the real difference was expectation: like the alpine pioneer Welzenbach, who claimed that carrying bivy gear was a guarantee of using it and who thus went without, Richey and Bouchard pruned equipment to the minimum, forcing themselves to move fast—a style facilitated because someone else had already unlocked the routes' secrets.

It was the same with Marko Prezelj, Attila Ozsvath, Manu Pellissier and Manu Guy, the international team that repeated the Golden Pillar of Spantik in 2000. The long approach hadn't got any shorter; the compact, snow-smothered marble slabs of the upper pillar hadn't got any easier; the hanging bivouacs hadn't got any more comfortable; and, it goes without saying on a Fowler-Saunders route, there were no old ropes on which to pull. Yet they got up in three days a climb that had required five days in 1981. Prezelj persuaded his French and Hungarian companions to travel light, and between them they devised a very efficient four-man climbing system. And again, it was matter of attitude—of growing confidence. As Prezelj put it in the AAJ, "The moves, which years ago I would have dared to execute only if protected at least at waist level, were dainty in spite of the rare air and protection."

How wonderful it must be to climb daintily at 7000 meters. I wonder if Mick Fowler has ever described himself as "dainty"? He certainly seems to have made ever more outrageous demands on himself, always climbing in a single push, on ever more tenuous mixed ground, on previously unexplored peaks such as the Arwa Tower, or on familiar icons such as Changabang.

In the book I deliberated long and hard about which Changabang route to include (Andy had not tackled this chapter when he died) and ended up with the Anglo-Polish route on the south face. When this route was climbed in 1978, it was probably the most committing big rock climb ever to have been done in the Himalaya and its sunny south-facing aspect made it look like the sort of route someone might want to repeat. The book may have reinforced the appeal of the mountain as a whole, but the previously unexplored north side has seen all the more recent action—laborious aid and dedicated teamwork by Pavel Chabaline's Russian team in 1998; competing pairs of Brits (Andy Cave and Brendan Murphy, and Fowler and Sustad) cramponing up mixed ground in 1997. The latter expedition turned into a gruelling epic when Steve Sustad slipped on the summit ridge, breaking a rib so painfully that an abseil descent of the route was ruled out. Instead, they teamed up with the other pair for a descent of the original route on the south side. As they headed down, Murphy was killed by an avalanche, leaving Cave, Sustad and Fowler to make a sad, gruelling circumnavigation of the mountain, crossing two high passes before getting back to base.

That 1997 climb seemed to reassert Changabang as a forcing ground for all that is bold and beautiful in Himalayan climbing. So did another of our iconic peaks, Thalay Sagar, where our selected route (dictated partly by Mike Kennedy's brilliant pictures) was the Northeast Ridge, but where the obvious future challenge was the North Face Direct. After many failed attempts, those antipodean professional sufferers, Lindblade and Whimp, finally pulled it off in 1997. At the latest count there are now six different lines on the face—the majority of which, on this most ledgeless wall, have involved many nights on portaledges, cowering from spindrift avalanches, but I am sure that the one-day ascent (one-day solo?) cannot be far off. And the circumstances are the same on Ama Dablam: no one has attempted a repeat of the Buhler/Kennedy route on the northeast face, but arguably harder routes have been climbed in the same neat style on the northwest face and on the stunning, epic, Northwest Ridge (Julian Cartwright and Rich Cross, 2001).

Of all the peaks in the book that I aspired to myself (in a hypothetical sort of way) the most compelling was the Ogre. Everything about it—the drama of the first ascent in 1977, the exquisitely isolated summit tower, the location at the heart of the Karakoram, the monumental architecture of the mountain, and the absence of a second ascent—gave it a particularly frightening allure. I chose the granite South Pillar as the route for the book. At that stage the route had been climbed, but no one had managed to continue up the big ice face above and reach the final summit tower. Several more attempts were made before Thomas Huber, Iwan Wolf and Urs Stocker finally succeeded in 2001.

Elsewhere in the Karakoram, I suppose that the big development since the book came out has been the explosion of (to me) unbelievably hard rock climbing on the fantastic spires around the Trango Towers and in the Hushe Valley. You could say that the mainly American climbers involved have only been extending what has been done before—except that there seems to have been a quantum leap in confidence, epitomized, perhaps by Conrad Anker and Peter Croft, who carried just one rope, a small rack, a couple of water bottles and a few Power Bars on Spansar Brakk, and who raced over difficulties up to 5.11a in a twenty-three-hour, nonstop ascent of an 8000-foot ridge. Himalaya Sierra Style! By contrast, there seems to be a new alternative obsession with extreme free climbing as the all-consuming goal, even if the achievement of that goal requires endless hanging around on portaledges—all very different from the days when an alpinist's job was just to get up the mountain by whatever means were quickest and most efficient.

What about the big, lumbering, 8000-meter giants? Any exciting news there? Well, in a word, no. Or not very much. Perhaps the death toll in those groundbreaking years of the 1980s was just too high, putting off the new generation? Or perhaps there just isn't the money to pay for edge-cutters to visit the giant peaks, now that potential sponsors are interested only in the fastest, youngest, oldest, first Seventh-Day-Adventist, first one-legged-lesbian, etc., etc., ascent of the South Col route on Everest. In Himalaya Alpine-Style, Andy chose to celebrate the 1984 speed ascent of the Japanese/Hornbein Couloir by Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan. Twenty-one years on from that climb, it remains a yardstick for long-necked activity on the world's highest peak, one which has not really been surpassed. During the early 1990s there were several attempts at emulation, but now people seem to have abandoned Everest to the guided-tour industry. I am not knocking the guiding companies: they do a competent job and getting up Everest is bloody hard work, by whatever means. But, as some friends put it to Reinhold Messner a few years ago, "What is there for us real mountaineers on Everest these days?" To which he said, well, actually, quite a lot—provided you can avoid the queues on the Second Step or Hillary Step (a good reason for trying the North Face or West Ridge). Now there's a project—the West Ridge Direct in alpine style! Or what about a solo ascent of the Kangshung Face—traversing the summit and coming down the north face?

In terms of serious Everest pioneering in recent years, apart from the dashing ski and snowboard descents, the only big event was last year's North Face Direct, whose climbers managed with admirable perversity to ignore the two obvious couloir lines up the face—Hornbein and Norton—and tackle the precarious rockbands in between. The route was done by a large and formidable Russian team, using oxygen, as was the case with the first ascent of Lhotse Middle's crazy summit, in 2001, and the North Face Direct on Jannu, in 2004. And, one day perhaps, the West Face Direct on Makalu? These are all big projects that people have talked about for years. Some have even set out to try them, proclaiming flamboyantly their aim to tackle them in the purest of pure styles, before coming home empty-handed or going to climb something else instead.

The purest purists would insist that these problems should be left until someone is ready to tackle them with nothing more than a chalk bag and a toothbrush. I would argue that climbing is about being realistic—that if you are going to sacrifice months, or years, of your life to Himalayan climbing, it's quite nice occasionally to get to the top of something. It's also important to set out with the aim of coming back alive. Alpine style may not be the most intelligent approach on some uniquely difficult and high objectives.

On most projects, however, small is nearly always more beautiful. Over the last few years, watching enviously as team after team succeeded on astonishing new climbs—Willie and Damian Benegas on Nuptse's Crystal Snake; Jules Cartwright and Rich Cross on Ama Dablam's dream Northwest Ridge; Tomaz Jakofcic, Peter Meznar, Marko Car, Matic Jost, Marko Prezelj and Andrej Stremfelj on Gyachung's Kang's North Face, to mention just three outstanding succeses—I think, yes, Mummery would be proud. Then I look at all the great horizontal journeys—Harish Kapadia's teams roaming over the East Karakoram, David Hamilton's recent giant ski traverse from Shimshal to Hushe—and all the possibilities in Yunnan, Sechuan and Eastern Tibet—and all those 7000ers in the Karakoram that still haven't had second ascents—and the future looks pretty good.

When Alex Lowe reviewed Himalaya Alpine-Style, he observed that Andy and I had been quite "generous" in pointing out future possibilties. Damn! I never meant to be generous. Perhaps we gave away too much? Regardless, whatever we intended—or didn't intend—I like to think that we may have helped real mountaineers to keep demonstrating that real Himalayan climbing is all about exploration, aesthetics, creativity and buckets full of adventure.

Finally, a quick word about the current vogue for dry tooling. Nothing new about that—Joseph Knubel did it on the East Face of the Grepon in 1911—it's just become a bit more trendy and sophisticated. However, the kind of thing that Prezelj and Steve House did recently on Canada's stunning North Face of North Twin, or what Robert Jasper and Marcus Stofer achieved on No Siesta on the Grandes Jorasses—using sophisticated new ice tools to move quickly up steep, cold rock—does seem to point to some exciting possibilities. Apply that approach to the Himalaya, and many of our previous assumptions could be abandoned, opening up new alpine-style possibilities on previously unimaginable problems. Perhaps that headwall on Makalu will go after all!

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