CURIOUS ICE FORMATIONS OCCUR in the Himalaya. Not exactly ice cliffs, these bulges fracture on the surface and occasionally shed from the mountainsides like the scales or giant warts of a great white dragon. Before Jannu, I had not experienced what I later called dablams, after a similar feature on the south face of Ama Dablam. They seem to form when ice builds over a protrusion of bedrock. The resulting avalanches are generally relatively small but quite enough to kill.
The autumn cold was beginning to bite as Ian Jowett and I topped out of Jannu’s Wall of Shadows at just over 20,000 feet. The 2,000-foot wall had taken six days and all our skill, and it was one of the hardest ice climbs achieved in the Himalaya to date. A corniced, storm-ravaged summit ridge capped the face 5,000 feet above us.
We had thought that the Wall of Shadows was the crux. But looking at the slope ahead, scored with deep tell-tale runnels, I was horrified to see a dablam, 300 feet in diameter, hanging over us. “You can’t tell me those cliffs are safe,” I said. “This is as far as I’m going!”
I had never given up on a climb before.
By then, I had completed dozens of the hardest–and some of the most dangerous–climbs in New Zealand, Peru and Europe. Nonetheless, I was hungry for more. My hero, Lionel Terray, had led the first ascent of Jannu in 1962 by the Southeast Ridge. A decade after his success, I decided that my next challenge would be the first ascent of the mountain’s north face, a wall of hanging glaciers and snow-crusted rock that Terray’s countryman, the accomplished Jean Franco, had said “Nobody will ever disturb.”
In 1974 Murray Jones and I went to the Everest region to film a documentary about Sir Edmund Hillary’s adventures. Around the same time, Ian Jowett and Limbo Thompson were on a reconnaissance trip many miles to the east of the north face of Jannu. Later we all met at a party at the British Embassy in Kathmandu. In the opulent garden, over beers, Jones, Jowett and I talked enthusiastically about Jannu. Ed Hillary, looking solemn, joined the group with a recent cutting from The Times of India: New Zealanders Jill Tremain, Vicki Thompson and two Indian women were missing, presumed dead, after an avalanche on Hardeol. Vicki was the love of Murray’s life; they were about to be married. Jill was a dear friend to Ian and me, and she had been my companion on a 100-day complete winter traverse of the Southern Alps. Each of us left the party to deal with our grief in private. None of the women’s bodies were ever found.
This was the beginning of my conscious sense of responsibility for the welfare of my friends. In the future, my mountaineering ambitions would take second place to my efforts to get everyone home safely.
The next year, Ian, Limbo and I joined a Kiwi expedition for an attempt on Jannu. On the walk in, I told my close friend Noel Sissons that I was worried someone would die on the climb. He sucked at the end of his long blond hair–a nervous habit. I could see he was thinking of the prospect of being separated from his new wife, Mary.
Clouds wreathed the north face when we arrived at base camp. When they cleared, the summit appeared 10,000 feet directly above us. A cliff fell 7,000 sheer feet to a glacial plateau. Below this, a band of rock dropped another 3,000 feet to the Jannu Glacier.
But to the left rose more reasonable-looking snow and ice slopes. A steep triangular wall of ribs and vertical ice gullies appeared–the Wall of Shadows. As our eyes searched the face for the best line, a massive avalanche fell from the giant’s left shoulder and plunged into the valley, just above base camp, showering us with debris. Over the next couple of months, we learned to cope with these daily bombardments.
Now looking up the easier-angled slopes, I was brought back to reality by the dablam looming over our heads. With a little encouragement from Ian, however, I climbed toward the protection of a short rock cliff near the dablam’s base. We had no sooner reached this sanctuary than a roar like a freight train began. Several blocks flew over our heads as the avalanche swept the rib we had just climbed.
We hightailed it for camp, whirling down the twenty abseils. All the way, I wrestled with the question of what to say to the rest of the team. If I didn’t tell my friends how dangerous I thought the cliffs were and someone was killed by falling ice, I knew I would carry the guilt for the rest of my life. On the other hand, if I shared my worries and my desire to quit, I risked wrecking the expedition.
Back at advanced base camp, I compromised and told my concerns to the leader, Pete Farrell. Pete insisted that I speak with the others. In the morning, Bryan Pooley, Geoff Wayatt and Jim Strang set out to find a way that avoided the dablam. They made camp in a crevasse just above the Wall of Shadows. Pooley, however, decided the climb was still too hazardous, and he retreated.
The next day, watching from advance base camp with binoculars, we saw Geoff and Jim traverse right and then climb straight up to camp at about 22,000. Their route avoided much of the danger posed by the dablam and skirted the difficulties of the more direct line. But winter had arrived on the face. Jet stream winds descended and hammered the upper slopes. Temperatures plummeted. Spindrift swept the upper slopes, like an endless cascade of white sand. To make matters worse, their stove didn’t work. For the three days, their only drink was what they had in their water bottles. On the fourth day, Jim climbed on to about 22,500 feet. After another unpleasant night, he and Geoff retreated with serious frostbite to advance base camp where we waited for them with hot drinks, food and medical attention.
Meanwhile, ignoring the avalanche hazards, Pete, Lynn Crawford and Limbo Thompson established a better camp in the crevasse above the Wall of Shadows. From there, they climbed the cliffs direct, until they were past the dablam. With Jim and Geoff no longer able to climb, I felt I had no choice except to rejoin the ascent.
I set out once more up the Wall of Shadows with Ian Jowett and Bryan Pooley. From the little rock cliff that had been my previous highpoint, we jugged the ropes directly below the dablam and then up a band of rich, yellow-brown granite. Impressed by Pete’s lead, we emerged on to easier-angled snow and ice and established another camp at about 22,000 feet.
To the west, Makalu and Everest glowed in the evening light. As night engulfed us, we struggled to cut a ledge in the iron-hard ice big enough for the tent. Our numb fingers fumbled with poles.
A couple of days later, Lynn, Bryan, Ian, Pete and I climbed relatively gentle slopes to the base of a couloir that gave access to the summit ridge. Here we left Pete and Bryan with equipment and good wishes for success, and we retreated to advance camp to hope and wait.
The next day they reached the top of the north face in gale-force winds. To continue along the summit ridge would have been fatal. It was hard to see clearly. They imagined big cornices overhanging the south face and snow bulges and mushrooms all the way to the summit–probably easy enough on a calm day but in these conditions impossible.
“What do you think?” asked Pete.
Bryan just shook his head, and it was all over.
Although we had climbed the face, we could not reach the summit. I was disappointed, but relieved that we all survived.
The following year, in the more clement pre-monsoon season and assisted by our fixed ropes high on the route, the Japanese team made the first complete ascent.
In 1987 a Dutch party achieved the second ascent. During the descent, two members were killed, possibly by an avalanche off the dablam.
In 2004 a Russian team finished an improbable direct line to the summit. During the climb, they sent me emails, with notes such as “Only made 5 meters today!” and generous compliments.
I was thirty years old on Jannu, but some pictures from that climb make me look older than I am now at seventy.