On October 14-21, Helias Millerioux, Benjamin Guigonnet, Frederic Degoulet completed a risky new route on Nuptse’s south face in mostly alpine style. They fixed one pitch of WI6–which all three free climbed at the end of Day 1 while conditions were ideal–and then they used one more fixed rope on a traverse to a bivy site on Day 3. The overall technical difficulty of their as-yet-unnamed route weighs in at M5+ WI6, 65? snow, with a length of 2342 meters to the summit from advance base camp. For Millerioux and Guigonnet, this was their second attempt on this route after trying it in 2015.
This is the same team of climbers who completed a difficult new route up the west face of Siula Chico (6265m) in Peru with Robin Revest in 2014, which they called Looking for the Void (M7 WI6 R, 865m).
Similar to their ambitious line on Siula Chico, the new route on Nuptse is prone to rockfall and seracs. Finding safe bivouacs was a challenge, and even their best efforts failed to yield sites that were ideal. Millerioux’s arm was injured on the descent by a falling rock while he was belaying at 7100 meters, and he had to make do with only one functioning arm the rest of the way down.
Nuptse’s south face has received quite a bit of attention from bold alpinists ever since the peak’s first ascent in 1961, which followed a snowy buttress up the middle of the face. But many talented climbers have been turned around. After attempting a few different lines in 2014 with Jason Kruk, Ian Welsted authored a report for Alpinist.com in which he wrote:
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 summiting….
At the end of the article, Welsted outlined two potential routes to the mountain’s western peak (7742m)–one of lines drawn on the photo follows the same approximate line as the French team’s new route.
In a simple, by-the-numbers report, Degoulet lists a total of at least 11 pitches of WI5 in addition to the first pitch of WI6, with several more technical pitches at slightly easier grades. There were also long stretches of soloing or simulclimbing on snow. Besides the hard climbing, a lot of time and energy was consumed with finding and constructing suitable bivy sites.
Degoulet described their efforts:
[Day 2] Not a very safe camp position. We spent two and a half hours digging the ledge for the tent. We dug into a snow slope, creating a right-angled triangle to make a wall as high as possible behind the tent to protect it from rockfall (this camp position the year before had resulted in a rock ripping the tent and landing close to Ben). We tried to make it safer by digging farther into the slope this year. In the end it was still threatened by rockfall and we had to sit with our backs against the snow….
Camp 3 had to be moved from the original site, as this year there was less snow. An alternative site was found slightly off route. A snow spur was well-protected from rockfall. It took one and a half hours to dig the bivy ledge….
Camp 5 was in a precarious position on a snow ridge (a snow mushroom)–safe from rockfall but we weren’t 100 percent happy for stability. It took one hour to dig and secure the tent….
They reached the summit at 3 p.m. October 19 and returned to Camp 5. Millerioux was injured by rockfall the following day, forcing the team to change plans on their descent strategy. Degoulet wrote:
We had planned to go to the safe Camp 3 but this required some climbing, so we chose to go down to the less-safe Camp 2, which did not require climbing to access…. We then had to cross a large couloir…with a lot of rockfall. We had to go as quickly as possible across and to help Helias who was wounded. We did eight more abseils using abalakovs, still helping Helias who could use only one of his arms.
Upon returning to Camp 2, the three sat on the ledge they’d excavated days before and waited six hours for the temperature to drop and freeze the snow and rock “for the most treacherous passage of the descent.” While they waited they made a satellite phone call to a doctor in France to address Millerioux’s injury. They arrived back at advance base camp (5400m) at 3 a.m. October 21 after 16 rappels and three hours of walking on the glacier and moraine on a moonless night.
[Claude Gardien assisted with this article.–Ed.]