Taeko and Yasushi Yamanoi (Japan) attempted Gyachung Kang (7985m) via the Slovenian Route (M4 55 degrees, 2000m, Car-Jakofcic-Jost-Meznar-Prezelj-tremfelj, 1999) in October. They arrived at base camp on September 16 and spent twenty days acclimating up to 6900 meters before proceeding to an advanced camp at the foot of the north face. On October 5 they left base camp; their cook, Gyaltsen, remained to look after camp during their climb. They began their ascent from 5900 meters on October 6 at 5 a.m., climbing unroped over mixed terrain (50-60 degrees). The upper part of the face featured overhanging rock and ice; fearing avalanches, they traversed beneath it, reaching 7000 meters, where they painstakingly chopped a ledge for their tent. On October 7 they continued, again unroped, climbing straight up before traversing right to a wide, thirty-degree plateau at 7500 meters, where they bivouacked. During this bivy, Yasushi noticed several toes on his right foot had turned purple.
Snow and near-whiteout conditions greeted the climbers the next day as they began. Taeko, feeling dizzy, decided to go back to the tent and wait for Yasushi. Yasushi continued over seventy-degree mixed terrain, reaching the summit at 1:30 p.m., six hours after beginning. He stayed on top only a minute before beginning his descent. A sense of listlessness greeted his return to the plateau. He was forced to stop every three or four steps and was reduced to crawling by the time he reached the tent at 3 p.m.
The storm continued, and they descended the next morning in ten-meter visibility. Taeko led; Yasushi experienced difficulties frontpointing due to the frostbite on his feet. They used the rope twice on the difficult traverse (anchors were problematic) before reaching 7200 meters, where they chopped a ten-centimeter ledge. Sitting on this, they pulled the tent over their heads for shelter. They were hit three times during the night by avalanches.
On October 10 they used the rope from the beginning. Yasushi went first. “Taeko was still vigorous, but I was exhausted,” Yasushi remembers. “Still, we needed to establish piton anchors, and I’m better at that than Taeko.” The storm continued, and anchors were difficult to find. On the seventh rappel Taeko was hit by an avalanche as she approached Yasushi at the anchors. She flew over him, coming to a stop upside down in midair, out of sight below. Righting herself, she noticed the rope, which had run over a sharp rock, was about to break. She cried out to Yasushi not to pull the rope, secured herself to the slope with her axe and crampons and untied. She had hit her head against a rock during the fall and lost much blood, as well as her right glove; her vision in her left eye was also affected.
Yasushi pulled up the rope, understood the situation, descended to confirm Taeko’s well-being, then reascended to retrieve the line. Another avalanche hit him, ripping off his goggles and affecting his vision as well. When he finally rejoined Taeko four hours later, he was exhausted and could no longer see. Taeko placed three screws and made an anchor for their bivy. When she went to light the stove, she dropped the lighter. They collected ice and swallowed it through the night.
Yasushi’s vision had improved by morning, and they continued their descent with the rope, which had been reduced to thirty-five meters by Taeko’s fall. When they reached the lower-angled slopes at the base of the face, they became separated. Thinking he might be better able to find Taeko from a distance, Yasushi continued down. Near the base of the face he noticed Gyaltsen, who looked up at him and said, “Tea, tea.” Upon reaching the glacier proper, Yasushi looked back to see Taeko with some people. He noticed strangers nearby. “What are you doing here?” he asked them. “We are training,” they replied.
Two hours later Taeko rejoined him on the glacier. She had felt the presence of others the entire time of her descent, and when the two discussed it, they realized they had been hallucinating. They reached their advanced base before dark, made tea and slept well in sleeping bags.
At noon October 12, they rose. Taeko’s vision had improved, while Yasushi was still experiencing difficulties in his right eye. They began the hike to base camp at 1 p.m. Taeko had not eaten for six days and was exhausted. Yasushi continued ahead through thirty centimeters of snow while Taeko followed slowly behind. At 2 a.m. they gave up their efforts to regain base camp and endured an open bivy. The next morning Yasushi took a photo of Taeko, then hurried for camp alone. Only the dining tent remained. He shouted for Gyaltsen, who appeared and burst into tears. Their support team had assumed they had disappeared.
They began their return to Kathmandu immediately and were flown to a hospital in Tokyo on October 18. At the time of this writing, Yasushi has lost five fingers to frostbite, as well as all the toes on his right foot. Taeko, who lost eighteen digits and her nose to frostbite on Makalu in 1991, had the remaining joints of her fingers amputated. Operations to treat their frostbite continue.