October 8, 2013: Wind churned the spindrift into waves of light that flowed around me. I was above 6800 meters on the South Face of Annapurna, climbing inside a thickening cloud. Before me, the headwall crested in a giant band of grey and brown rock, striated with runnels of ice and snow. I decided to set up my tent. There were two possible outcomes: either the wind would ease and I’d be able to go higher–or I’d have to retreat in the morning.
Since I couldn’t find a sheltered spot, I began to climb down. One hundred meters lower, a crevasse turned out to be a perfect bivouac. I was now inside the mountain, surrounded and protected by its blue ice and white snow. The last rays of sun vanished, and the mountain grew quiet, just as I’d noticed the previous evening from Advance Base Camp. Night fell quickly through the still air. This was my chance. The only way I’d reach this summit would be to climb into the dark.
In 1970, twenty years after the first ascent of Annapurna I (8091m), all fourteen 8000-meter peaks had been climbed. When the British expedition leader Chris Bonington gathered a team of ten mountaineers and six Sherpas for the South Face, attaining the summit was no longer the main goal. Instead, they hoped to make the first ascent of a steep big wall. For months, rotating groups fixed thousands of meters of ropes up a white-crenellated crest and sheer, ice-plated rock. On May 27, Don Whillans and Dougal Haston left Camp VI (7300m) and entered a fog of spindrift and storm. That night, they radioed Bonington. “Did you manage to get out today?” he asked. “Aye,” Haston said. “We’ve just climbed Annapurna.”
Although it was the beginning of a new era in alpine climbing, Bonington could already see beyond their accomplishment. Future alpinists, he declared, would “escape from the heavy siege tactics that we were forced to employ and make lightweight assaults against these huge mountain problems” (Annapurna South Face, 1971). Fourteen years later, the Swiss alpinists Norbert Joos and Erhard Loretan ventured with a small team up the seven-kilometer-long East Ridge, which borders the South Face in a rippling line of subpeaks and summits. For the final four days on the crest, the two men continued alone in alpine style through squalls of wind, committing themselves to total solitude between heaven and earth. In 8000 Rugissants, Loretan wrote, “I’ve never felt as far away from the living and as close to the dead…. When we returned to base camp and life showed its stubbornness in the first, timid plants, in the joyous flight of the drab crows, that we were, in the true sense of the words, revenants, returning ghosts.”
Loretan became my idol. He helped bring another revolutionary approach to the Himalaya, achieving the best results by moving remarkably fast and light across vast stretches of terrain….