Alpinist 57 (Spring 2017) included a feature profile of Jannu-Kumbhakarna. Paul Hersey wrote a big and captivating profile on the mountaineering history and local, cultural significance of Jannu, while I wrote an account of the ascent Athol Whimp and I made of the mountain in 2000. On the cover of the issue is a photograph Athol Whimp took from the summit, looking back toward Kangchenjunga, with myself in the foreground, climbing the final meters to the summit.
Clouds pushed up from the valley, tumbling over themselves, propelled by cold, rushing air. Within minutes, spindrift streaked down and whirled around me. As Athol climbed up and past my hanging belay, he peered into the heights above, looking for shelter before the light was gone. He said nothing as he kept going; the rugged force of his movements provided a ballast against the storm. The rope trailed behind him, lashed by the tumbling snow. Later, when I sensed he had me on belay, I started up, immediately pushed off balance by spindrift. I fought on, following an upwards, sideways route into the grey. The blizzard punched me into a kind of claustrophobic tunnel. For a while, I lost all connection with the constant of time. Finally, I looked up. There was Athol, hunched over the cusp of an icy pod, on the edge of a hanging ice cliff. The storm got heavier. We needed to move ourselves and our frozen, mangled rope farther in, beneath the shelter of the ice cliff, out of the fall line of the avalanches and the swirling mass of snow and wind, away from everything that kept screaming down the walls of Jannu.
Winter still hung in the air as Athol and I rode east in an old bus, away from Kathmandu and on a bearing for Jannu-Kumbhakarna. The mountain was a chaotic image in my mind, formed by the stories and photos of past climbers who had made the journey into its orbit and been changed forever. Sitting on the hard edge of the bus, I could already feel the immensity of its north side, its indifference to my insignificance.
Dawn pushed through the dirty windows. The bus swung up and around countless bends. From the top of a sharp, red-dirt crest, we saw it, still far away. The driver perched the bus on the road’s edge, and Athol and I hurried out, speechless. The distant Jannu caught beams of yellow-orange light – the hue of countless Nepali postcards. And then we were back on board, lurching down the side of the ridge, yet another ridge on the way to the end of the road.
Rain fell hard while Athol and I slept under the tin roof of a family’s house at the roads-end village of Taplejung, waiting for dawn. Eight days later we finally wandered up the terraces of the Kumbhakarna Glacier in winter’s final, gusty, frozen throes. The ground was dry and frozen, the sun weak. Our porters left us, and all was quiet.
After tuning ourselves to the rhythm of the mountain and the weather, we cast off on an attempt of the North Face Direct. At 6100 meters, rock and ice fell from high above, shredding our portaledge and nearly ourselves. We searched for words that would offer our impending retreat some dignity. An hour after we were almost killed the shock was coming to the surface, to the edge. There was a faint rush of wind across the headwall, like a gust from the other side of a wide lake. It looked deathly: black clouds streaked like scars. Our effort had hit silence.
Back in base camp, Athol and I turned our attention to the Wall of Shadows. With no satellite device, we relied on a barometer and intuition. By early May, the weather calmed and the winds abated, so we decided it was time. We climbed two pitches and rappelled. The following morning, we headed up, across, under and around the hanging ice cliffs that threatened our entry into the higher realms of ice and rock. In the dark blue twilight, as we settled into our small single-skin tent, Athol handed me a bowl of noodle soup, and I held it close, the source of life and nourishment. Even at 6100 meters, the cold pressed in.
Then the dawn, and the iron-hard icefields. It required a lot of power to penetrate the surface with my axes, and I paused to take in air in between strikes. Through the steepening rockbands the ice shallowed, and under each blow it splintered, yielding the tiniest fragments of Jannu. Later, as the constantly morphing cloudscape moved in on us, we fought our way to a small ice cave.
At first light, I scraped through fresh snow and blocks of blue ice. Eventually, we found the underside of a bergschrund at 6750 meters, a feature we knew to look for. At 1.30am we left our tiny sanctuary with the rope, three pitons, six ice screws, some ‘biners, a gas canister and stove, some snacks and soup powder. As our tech beams arced around, their ghostly white lines painted the slope with temporary life. We continued unroped, speaking in moments until he climbing got harder and we funneled ourselves through a rock-threaded gully. Front-pointing into sunrise put us in a state of absolute freedom. On our right were the immense granite walls at the upper end of the north face, and on our left what seemed like an infinite measure of alpine space with a still-dark void beneath. We approached the summit ridge with a sense of acceleration. At the rock wall immediately below the crest, Athol pulled the rope from his pack, tied on and kept moving. I followed over the clusters of exposed, fractured rock and the rubble of broken ice, my lungs scorched, my hands numb.
Soon after, we sat in the sun at 7250 meters, our gaze tracing the cornice-ridden ridge to where it vanished before the summit. It was 9.30am. As we thought through the complexities of what remained, and the newly forming clouds, I sensed the precariousness of where stood and where we were headed. Everything appeared far away. Athol stepped slowly along the ridge. “Let’s just go a bit further and see,” he said. And then I felt the calm and acceptance of what might come our way, and the faith that we would find a way through it. Our necks were in the noose.
My memory of that day pulses through my mind, like the clouds that gathered and dissipated and gathered again, darker than before. Dry, weightless snow had accumulated over blue ice. To the east, a sinewy cornice trickled away. The thousands of feet below us to the northland south would tolerate no mistake. Around 5.30pm we were well into the rising crux of the ridge. The air turned colder, the clouds black. A churning of electricity pressed down.
I was leading up the ridge crest, thinking we were just around the corner from the top when Athol yelled, “Andy, get back!” Confused, I front-pointed down to him and felt the whirring buzz between us. Wind slashed the rope around. Then Athol pointed, trying to shout again. I saw the edge of something dark, on the very rim of the north face. “That slot, down there,” he said with desperation in his voice. I continued front-pointing, down and into the crevice – rock on one side, ice on the other – sorted a body belay and hauled the rope fast. The night took us in. The darkness droned on as we shivered against the -18ºC cold, listening to the ebb and flow of wind and clouds. I leaned against Athol’s legs and he said to me, “I wouldn’t be here with anyone else mate.”
At dawn, we left for the summit. By chance or force, we found some sort of temporary passage in time, a small slice of possibility. The sky opened into an inky blue, and the air didn’t move. The only sounds were the ones we made as we called to each other, panting. We soon took the rope off and got into a rhythm, switching sides, turning the crest in equilibrium as the space dropped beneath us to all the ancient glacial places so far below. The final distance sharpened and narrowed before us, as if the summit ridge were trying to slice a path into the sky.
And there, four hours after leaving, and with no place to sit, we cut a step each and stood on top, peering over and down the north face, then back around in a circle to where our crampons bit into the mountain, now under us. The sun’s rays refracted through snow crystals, like stars drifting in the gossamer clouds. After traversing back along the ridge, we headed down the fluted snow toward the crevice where wed spent the night. The slope steepened before it disappeared, lost over the edge of the north face. As I belayed Athol from inside the crevice, he fell past me in an accelerating blur. The rope stopped. I willed him to move. After a minute, his weight eased from the rope. He climbed back to me, his eyes bloodshot. Down feathers drifted from tears in is suit.
“Nice job holding that, Andy,” he said quietly. and took his pack off, shivering. From then until dark, we were consumed with the idea of returning along the ridge, moving in concert with the terrain – it felt like picking our way along and through a giant, glassy wave.
The year before we went to Jannu, Athol and I walked up the Hooker Valley on a hot New Zealand afternoon. On the crest of a moraine ridge, the memorial, a sharp pyramid, stood like a natural part of the landscape, surrounded by rocks and scrub. I could imagine families who’d never truly understood their son’s or daughter’s death in the mountains, stumbling here and finding, more than anything, a place to project their grief.
Tristram Whimp told me he always found something “a bit eerie” about being here. Once, when Athol was overdue from a solo of the direct route of the south face of Aoraki / Mt. Cook, Tristram had waited for two days in the village below, pacing in a storm. At last, Athol had emerged physically unscathed after an experience that had pushed him toward “the limit,” and Tristram felt the relief of one connected by blood.
One night, Athol and I lay in our bunks inside Plateau Hut, numbering up all the people who’d been killed on and about the mountain since we’d been around. The empathy comes with knowing how easily it can happen. So many symbolic warning flares have been fired for the rest of us by those who perished. Surrounded by evidence of disaster, we keep going into the fray.
Some way along the ridge, a large section of cornice above Athol silently fell to the south. I hadn’t seen it happen, and he quickly scampered down and away from where it broke. When I caught up to him, we gasped together, hunched over our axes. In front of us, the curl of the ridge disappeared to the east. As dusk closed in, the sun brushed the distant horizon and exploded the air around us. Countless crystals of snowy orange light swirled in the deep cold updraft. Two rappels put us down at the top of the massive icefields, and as we put the rope away, I felt the darkening enormity of the scene. By the time I’d put my pack on, Athol was already moving.
The abyss pulled at my weary body. Below me, Athol’s axes moved in a steady rhythm; his front points bit with a tired, but certain force. He had stopped to rig his head torch when I caught up with him. I did the same, and we set off again without talking. Much later, we reached the rock barrier and the steep, shallow gully. Glad to be in the right place, we thought about building a rappel anchor. But I kept going, impatient and drained.
“How is it?” Athol breathed. He was already descending. Ice peeled under each blow, thin plates tumbling. We moved in and around furrows of ice and layered snow until we eventually found our little tent under the depths of starlight. It was 9.45pm. In our sleeping bags, we talked with the energy that comes with getting away with it all. We didn’t wake until afternoon. Hoarfrost sprinkled in the silence. With too much radiant heat from the sun, we waited for an early start the next morning, and we ate our last morsels of food. At 5 a.m. we headed down, down, down, rappelling intermittently from the last pieces of of small rack.
We hit the vast plateau at 5500 meters in the twilight and recovered the pack with food and gas. Under light snowfall, a small opening to the rest of the world appeared – a way to imagine what was on the other side of our time on Jannu. After ahot drink, we pushed our way through sugar-soft snow. Athol was vomiting. A thunderstorm lit up the northern horizon. Violent surges echoed across to us, two men crawling to the promise of safety.
Days afterward, in base camp, as we waited for the yaks from Ghunsa, the stillness in my mind was intense and profound, full of light and warmth. Secure on the earth beneath his feet. Athol tended to his sunburned, journeyed face. Clouds still rolled through and around Jannu, hanging onto the lower reaches of the glacier. And then huge spaces of light lifted the mist away, giving us a window back to the upper reaches of the mountain, to those places where we’d been with such devotion and love.
Our time up there was marked by just a few footprints, scrapings from our crampons in the snow. I knew that as the years came to pass there would be more. For as each journey ends, we realized that journey was part of a deeper search for experience and meaning. Never before had I felt such a strong sense of communion between the cautious, rational mind and the deeper, profound life force as I did during our time along Jannu’s summit ridge.
Still, I can feel it: the wind snapping at us, the spindrift stinging our faces, the lack of oxygen turning our lips blue, the ridge dropping into thin air, the black clouds, the crackling electricity, the desperate night, the feeling of being eerily concerned yet deeply calm, not quite alive yet wholly aware. Something inside was always connected to a belief and acceptance of all; something, somewhere, absolute and pure.
(In memory of Athol Whimp, 1961–2012).