On October 23, French alpinists Mathieu Detrie, Pierre Labbre, Mathieu Maynadier, and Jerome Para climbed a new line to the top of the south face of Gaurishankar, a mountain honored by both Hindus and Buddhists as one of the most holy. Its twin peaks rise from the Rolwaling Himal, along the Tibetan-Nepalese border. Its Hindi name, Gaurishankar, is a combination of the shorter south summit (Gauri; 7010m) and the north summit (Shankar; 7134m). In Hindu tradition, Gauri is the fair or golden goddess and Sankar is a manifestation of Shiva, the god of destruction. “True to its name, Gaurishankar appears unapproachable, a giant mountain of staggering beauty but, unlike most Himalayan peaks of its size, it offers no reasonable route of ascent,” American climber Al Read wrote in the 1980 American Alpine Journal. For the Buddhist Nepalese, the mountain is called Jomo Tseringma and the southern summit is respected as their holiest mountain.
In 1979, John Barry, Peter Boardman, Tim Leach, Guy Neithardt and Sherpa Pemba Lama climbed Gauri. Boardman later wrote, “Although numbed by an unpleasant night, it was exhilarating after 20 days on the narrow ridge to walk up the gentle wide slopes of the south summit plateau…. We stood a meter below the topmost point out of respect to Gauri and Tseringma.” Four years later, a ten-man Yugoslav team summited the peak via the south face, following the Boardman route for the last 500 meters.
Only three teams have climbed the hallowed peak’s northern summit in the last 33 years, all via the southwest face. The last ascent of Sankar–the only winter ascent–was completed in January of 1986 by Choi Han-jo and Ang Kami Sherpa. Ang Kami had first climbed the peak two years prior, accompanied by Wyman Culbreth who said of the climb, “In retrospect, it wasn’t just the summit that was important…. [A]fter the expedition we were all still really good friends. After all, there are many things that make up a successful expedition.” First to ascend the north summit were John Roskelley and Dorje Sherpa, who summited the peak in 1979 during a time when, according to Read, “Gaurishankar remained the last major unclimbed summit in the Nepal Himalaya.”
After nearly a month of waiting out bad weather and almost aborting the trip, Detrie, Labbre, Maynadier and Para left base camp at the outset of a weather window on October 21 with their sights on a central line up the south face. Two days of climbing brought them to a difficult section near the top of the face. “The beginning was ok then we were blocked two pitches down the summit by a difficult rock band,” Maynadier wrote. After trying several options, they reached the top of the south face (ca. 6900m) in high winds at 4:00 p.m. on October 23. The foursome chose not to continue to the south summit before descending. The team reached base camp “dismasted” but happy.