Ben Gilmore, Kevin Mahoney, Cory Richards and Freddie Wilkinson imagined this Zorro route up the thin ice runnels crisscrossing the Cobweb Wall on the South Face of Nuptse in 2010. A slew of obstacles — unexpectedly difficult terrain, dangerous snow conditions — and the deaths of Chhewang Sherpa and Joe Puryear ultimately shut down their attempts on the west ridge, but “we still found the space to daydream,” Wilkinson wrote on his blog afterward. “On the right hand edge of the Cobweb Wall, a small rib protrudes just far enough from the main face that it might be protected. This feature connects the opening snowfield to the final couloir in an elegant diagonal zig-zag, a masterpiece of alpine aesthetics which we dubbed the Zorro Line. In perfect conditions, holding the perfect hand, was this line climbable? We left basecamp without a real answer — and that, more than anything, is the most frustrating aspect of a trip such as ours. The cards were so bad, we never really got the chance to place our bet.”
It was this line that Canadian alpinists Ian Welsted and Jason Kruk sought to climb this autumn, supported by the Mugs Stump Award.
From September 6 through November 7 Jason Kruk and I, Ian Welsted, were lucky enough to be away from Canada attempting to climb one of the truly legendary big walls of the Himalayan mountains, the south face of Nuptse (7861m). The trip was highlighted by good acclimatization, time spent at altitude, both good technical climbing and scary and dangerous snow climbing, a very good rapport with our local crew, a general familiarization with the Khumbu climbing scene (it was a first trip to Nepal for each of us), and a realization of the inherent difficulties of alpine-style climbing on this, one of the bigger alpine faces in the world.
In all, we climbed approximately 3000 vertical meters of terrain. Unfortunately, this was spread over three different attempts on three facets of the face. Our team topped out at approximately 6400 meters. If only all three attempts had been stacked on top of each other, we might have gotten close to the summit!
For Himalayan alpinists the face does not require an introduction. The southeast pillar is legendary. Jeff Lowe, Mark Twight, Jim Elzinga, Pete Arbic, Barry Blanchard, Steve House, Marko Prezelj, have all tried it. Early attempts on the pillar employed alpine-style climbing tactics. After his two failed attempts, solo in 2002 and with Vladimir Suviga in 2003, Valeriy Babanov theorized that, on a face of this size and technical nature, climbers would almost inevitably run out of steam before summitting. This is what happened on the alpine-style attempt to a highpoint of 7500 meters, 350 meters shy of the summit, over nine days, by Jim Elzinga and Peter Arbic. Before they could finish the climb, they ran out of food fuel and stable weather. Babanov finally summitted Nuptse East (7804m) in autumn 2004 with Yuri Koshelenko by fixing line to 6400 meters, taking five days to ascend. They spent two of those days just on the unclimbed section from 7450 meters to the summit.
In 2008, Frenchmen Stephane Benoist and Patrice Glairon-Rappaz traveled the least technical terrain, over ice and snow, in a three-day push. They descended from the summit ridge at 7700m. Several strong American teams have considered the face, but no major alpine-style attempts have been made in recent years.
Jason and I were aware of this history before proposing our trip. In fact, it was its legend that drew us to this face. It is essentially one of the standing problems of high-altitude mountaineering: how to climb in alpine style, without leaving behind fixed lines as trash, on these highest of peaks, on something more than an easily travelled snow route. Although we did not solve the riddle on this trip, Jason is young and eager to return and apply the lessons learned on this trip. I, on the other hand, ended the trip in the hospital in Kathmandu and will need to reassess my climbing activities after consulting with friends and doctors.
By late September, we had established our base camp and hiked to 5900 meters. We trekked to the base of the wall to scope our route options. Four kilometers from the base, we both felt a very distinctive, sudden shock through the ground. Looking up, trying to ascertain what had caused the shock, we saw a puff of snow being released from approximately 7000 meters on the Cobweb Wall. We were both stunned to realize that the shock had come from that far up on the wall and had been felt so clearly through the ground. With this in mind we were confirmed in our belief that any route on this southwest aspect of the face would have to remain clear of the Cobweb Wall.
Over the course of the next week we would come to decide that the Zorro ridge itself was unsafe. What we came to name “Barry’s Pillar” after Barry Blanchard, who first proposed it to us as a possibility, seemed much more technically difficult ground, but also safer.
On October 10, six inches of snow fell on base camp in six hours during a windy and violent thunderstorm as part of Cyclone Hudhud. Although we did not receive as intense a storm as the Annapurna area, where many fatalities occurred both due to avalanche and exposure, we were very glad to have accurate forewarning of the event. We spent the days in base camp, occasionally having to shovel out our tents.
A week later, we were turned around on Barry’s Pillar by delaminated ice on smooth, south-facing granite at 6100m. Jason strained a finger pulley, an injury he thought might take a month to heal. We began to look for the easiest way up the mountain. A much talked-about snow line rises from the eastern Lhotse Nup glacier. Only the final 300 meters involves technical mixed climbing. Upon viewing the face, we saw that this proposed route was subject to unacceptable objective hazard. Its low-angle slopes were exposed to huge, 1000m rock walls. It was a terrain trap with a massive crown line leftover from the recent snows of Hudhud. Our chances of being able to climb it were much higher than anything on the southwest aspect, but our chances of dying on the ramp were equally high. We decided the risk was too great for us.
We returned to Barry’s Pillar on October 27 with summit winds of 40-50 mph in the forecast and just 10 days left before we had to leave. We were of two minds. Jason believed that, with a heavier rack, he could overcome the delaminating ice pitches we deemed unsafe on our last attempt. I believed we should head up less steep snow slopes leading to the southwest ridge. Jason relented.
We enjoyed some moderate snow and ice climbing on the first day, choosing a line that was minimizing our exposure to the snowy terrain above by sticking to a ridge on our left. The snow was deep and faceted, making for very tiring, insecure snow climbing. We found a snow scoop under which we put our tent.
By traversing under a huge dormant serac, we came close to gaining the ridge the next day, but we opted to camp in a protected cave at 6300m. As we climbed out of the cave in the morning, on October 29, we saw several large avalanches pouring off the upper south face. The first pitch of the day was vertical snow. We were lucky to find screws by digging. By 2:00 p.m. we’d reached the ridge, and were faced with a bleak prospect. We were at 6400 meters, still 1100 or 1200 meters below the western summit, and separated from the top of Barry’s Pillar by a very difficult, if not impossible, ridge traverse. As this type of snow reaches a certain angle, it will no longer hold body weight and is simply unclimbable. It had taken us two and a half days to get this far, and the snow was getting deeper. The upper part of the route is a huge couloir of snow, which was not safe looking considering the amount of storm snow present, the high winds were forecast to increase to 50 miles per hour, and we were wary of the large avalanches we’d witnessed that morning. Without actually discussing the question we both realize we are not going to be able to complete the route.
We spent the majority of the following day rappelling, finding heaps of old fixed rope, some of which we salvaged to use as rappel anchors. After descending to base camp, we realized that we had repeated the attempt made by Wilkinson et al. To their highpoint. We had not researched sufficiently to know this prior to our attempt. It is likely that if we’d known this in advance, that information would have influenced our decision making process on our last attempt.
As a strange postscript to the expedition, on our first day of casual downhill hiking out of the Khumbu I experienced a loss of consciousness. Luckily, we were covered by rescue insurance through Global Rescue, and there is excellent helicopter rescue service in the Khumbu. I was evacuated to Kathmandu after walking downhill for approximately an hour to the next available heli pad. The medical care I received was excellent, and a few days later we flew to Canada.
This incident reveals to me both the physical and mental fatigue that this trip involved. At no time on any of the three routes were we on terrain which one could consider objectively safe. This being our first trip to Nepal, it is difficult to understand whether this was a particular feature of this season, or whether it is the nature of the face. In the end we managed to get to slightly under 6500 meters on the unclimbed southwest ridge of Nuptse. It is a great, unclimbed challenge. Whether it would be climbable with different conditions or a more concerted effort remains to be seen. We both climbed for our first time on one of the giants of the Himalaya. Jason has mentioned that he is eager to return to the mountain. We gained considerable experience on a huge face, which will aid in future climbs.