21st July 1998
Nanga Parbat - Alan makes it Number 10
Britains top extreme altitude mountaineer
has successfully summited on Nanga Parbat.
Know as 'the Killer Mountain', and the worlds
ninth highest, Nanga Parbat is recognised
as one the hardest 8000 metre peaks.
Alans Tenth 8000 Metre Peak - Nanga Parbat
A Japanese climber was dead. He had been hit by a rockfall before falling 200 metres and now his body lay two hours away on the lower slopes of Nanga Parbat - the killer mountain.
There but for the grace of God, I thought as the mountain flexed its anger. I had survived the 8125 metre peak two days ago and was about to leave base camp. My tent was packed and the porters were on their way down the Diamir Valley when i heard the news and scanned the snows through binoculars. Some spanish, japaneses and Pakistani climbers were dealing with the tragedy and bringing the body down.
Nanga Parbat is one of the most difficult and dangerous of the 8000 metre peaks to climb. It requires steep, technical climbing and the bad weather is notorious, with serious avalanche and rockfall dangers.
The Japanese climber has died tackling the Kinhoffer route's giant couloir, on the lower slopes of the Diamir Face. To acclimatise myself before my summit bid i had made my way up the route three times. At dawn the sun melts out rocks and boulders along the gully, and they fall without warning. It was like climbing a vertical battlefield, strafed by mortat and shellfire, so a pre-dawn start was always necessary to avoid the worst of the bombardment.
I usually left base camp at 2 am to begin up tp 12 hours of physical amd mental push to the ledges and campsites at 5800 metres. It seemed as if Nanga Parbat was making me run a gaunlet of fear, or baptism of fire, to even broach the lower slopes.
The final rockface, known as the Kinshoffer Wall is a vertical and overhanging section as steep as any HVS rock in Britain. At 5800 metres, with a 20 kg rucksack, it's not as much fun as climbing a Lakeland crag in rock shoes. Old, tattered ropes drape down the 200 metres of rock, and snow lies on the ledges with ice bulging out of the cracks.
After 12 hours of effort and the climax of the demanding, steep Kinshoffer Wall, the ledges at 5800 metres were a welcome place to collapse. This was camp 2; I'd opted to miss out on camp1 as there was no safe site protected from rockfall. I used camp 2 as an advanced base camp to acclimatise from, pushing higher and higher up the mountain, before eventually resting back at base camp to prepare for the final push.
Just three weeks after arriving at base camp I finally set off on my first, and luckily my only, summit attempt. I left base camp on 18th July at 2 am, the same day as two australian and Pakistani climbers, while two Korean parties had set of for the summit the day before.
My rucksack was heavy, full of food and gas for up to eight days. It certainly wasn't enough to feed me for eight days back in Britain - I couldn't carry that much weight. Instead I had my Pride Valley chapattis, mad in the north east of England, which I would eat with cheese, marmalade, Marmite, HP sauce and Nutella. I reckoned I could eke it out if I had to.
Eleven hours later, I flopped onto the ledge at 5800 metres. It was 1 pm. There had been some rockfall and one coffee mug sized chunk had landed only 12 inches away from me with a sickening thud. Needless to say a helmet was essential on this section, but I felt as though I could have used armour plated shoulder pads and body armour too. Rocks would go zooming past with a roaring noise - a cross between a NATO jet and a formula one racing car. Instinct is to duck, hide or run but there is nowhere to go, so you have to grin and bear the mental torture and hope there's not a rock with your name on it.
Next day, the route to camp three was more fun as a section of rock and snow led up to big icefield. It only took me around four hours to reach a snow shoulder at 6300 metres, where I holed up in the tent, rehydrating as the afternoon clouds rolled in. most afternoons, the cloud would form and fresh snow would fall before clearing in the evening. I melted pan after pan of snow for water, drinking endless cups of tea, coffee and powdered orange.
Camp four was the final assault camp at 7100 metres, and reaching it from camp three would involve more difficult and dangerous ground, in particular the risk of a windslab avalanche. It took about 12 hours to reach the camp, pushing up through deep snow and exposed ice. more fresh snow had been dumped and I endured a white-out for one and a haf hours. I arrived at the assault camp pretty well knackered and hardly in any state to make a summit bid. I was cold, snow encrusted and very dehydrated, having been up since 2 am and climbing from 4 am to 4 pm. All I had to rest in was a tiny single-skin tent. What I really needed was a drying room, bathroom, dining room and bedroom.
It would have been nice to have rested at camp four for a day before making a summit bid, but I knew the weather conditions would not hold. I had to seize the opportunity now. I rested, brewed and rehydrated as best I could as the evening cleared to leave a still night, but there was no moon, so a head torch was essential. After brewing most of the night and getting very little sleep, I set out at 4 am in the dark, just before the thin light of dawn. It was bitterly cold, around -30 degrees C. I reckoned it would be at least ten hours to the top which would make it 2 pm, but I wished I had set off at midnight so I could summit at 10 am. I knew the weather wouydl sock in during the afternoon.
From the moment I set off the going was tough. Deep, fresh snow had to be waded through as the slope steepened up the final, broad gully leading to the summit rocks. I became aware of the avalanche risk but pushed it to the back of my mind. I wanted to get up this mountain, I really didn't want to have to go through another summit bid. It had taken me three days to get to this point and I knew it would be two days down, so I mght as well push on.
I became more and mopre tired as the lack of sleep and the extreme altitude sapped my strength, I tried a little nap at one point. I thrust my iceaxe into the snow and tied myself on, slumping down onto the short sling that stopped me sliding 4000 metres down the face.
As the conditions became more difficult I realised I wouldn't reach the summit by early afternoon. Should I turn back, only a few hours from the top? No, I said to myself, I will push on, even if it means getting to the top at 4 pm, 6 pm or even 10 pm!
The afternoon clouds rolled in and a blizzard blew up for two hours, dumping more snow and graupel - polystyrene like balls of snow which poured down the slope like ballbearings. All the tracks below me were being filled in. I knew I was close to the top now and decided to push on.
When the snow slope finally broke out onto the summit rocks, I knew I had it in the bag. The afternoon storm had abated and I struggled the last half hour to the top. It was 6 pm, just one hour away from darkness.
Alans Tenth 8000 Metre Peak - Nanga Parbat - Part 2
I only felt a sort of relief on the summit that was nearly over. Joining the three Korean climbers and the Australian and Pakistani climber, I wasn't even bothered about having my picture taken at first. All I wanted to do was to shoot some film for the documentary. Eventually I did get a snap of me holding a picture of my daughter Fiona, together with a few photos of a fantastic sunset and my long shadow on the summit snow patch. I remebered to collect a couple of rocks for a geologist friend at Oxford. Nanga Parbat is one of the fastest growing mountains and rocks from the top should prove interesting. After 20 minutes on the summit, I set my mind to the task of descending. I was confident I had enough energy left and the approaching blackness didn't worry me, even if the avalanche prone slopes did.
I ploughed down the slopes, illuminated by my trusty Petzl headtorch. What woudl I do without it, I thought? Probably bivouac out until daylight and end up frost bitten or dead. A headtorch has often helped me off the British hills in winter and back in time for a pint. now it was more a matter of life or death, certainly saving a few digits at least.
All the tracks were filled in by the new snow and it was difficult to find the descent route on the huge mountain face. Sometimes i would pick up the trail. I could just make out the slight ridges in the snow that were the old steps from the ascent. I was so exhausted it wasn't easy to remeber the route in reverse. It had taken me 14 hours to climb from camp four to the top. I knew the severe forms of acute mountain sickness (high altitude pulmonary oedema and cerebral oedema) were a possibilty and if the weather turned nasty it would be serious.
Around midnight I lost track of time. I had got within 5 minutes of my tent at camp four but could go no further. I had no rope and there were hidden crevasses ahead. I racked my brains to try to remeber the route to the relative safety of the tent. All the tracks had been blown over. somewhere I vaguely remebered an ice ridge through the seracs circumventing the deep crevasses. All I could do was sit in the snow and wait for the group of Koreans behind me - I knew one of them had a rope. It was nearly two hours before they reached me and they had ditched the rope to save weight!
I realised this could mean a cold bivouac until dawn to find the way, not a good option. One of the Korean group moved ahead about five metres and I followed. Unbelievably we didn't dissapear into a crevasse. From there I recognised the route and three minutes later I was unzipping my tent door ready to collapse inside.
A couple of other Koreans had already given in and stopped higher up the mountain to wait for daylight. I later learned one of them had got frostbite on his foot.
It had taken nearly eight hours to get back to my tent. It was all I could do to stay awake long enough to snap off my crampons and take my boots off before snuggling up in my sleeping bag for a fitful sleep. My body desperatly needed fluids. I had only had two litres in nearly 24 hours of masochistic effort. But I was down the first section and I knew is nearing safety.
Another fine morning heralded my withdrawal to camp two at 5800 metres. Once there, I knew I had only the dangerous couloir to face. That evening I noticed my face and hands swollen with peritheral oedema - not too worrying, but I was glad to be below 6000 metres.
On day six my rucksack was heavier than ever, possibly around 40 kg, as I stuffed all my equipment in I had used on the mountain. Setting off on a free hanging abseil at the top of the Kinshoffer Wall, I felt dangerously unstable as the weight of the rucksack tried to flip me over. As I started sliding down the rope, fear suddenly gripped my bowels. I realised I couldn't control the friction and was accelerating rapidly. I was too heavy with the huge load and too weak to hold the friction. All I could do was to slam myself into the rock wall to slow myself down and stop on a ledge to try to twist more friction on the rope.
I turned the alloy figure of eight descender over and used the smaller hole for more friction. That helped, but it was a close shave. I could have sped off the end of the 100 metre rope and down the couloir. All of the 1000 metre couloir is steep enough to abseil - it would be like abseilling from Scafell Pike to the Wasdale Head Inn!
This was one of the scariest abseils I can ever remeber doing, but it got me closer to base camp quicker than I could have hoped. I wore through the palms of my gloves and my figure-of -eight descender was burning hot by the time I reached the bottom. All that was left was a plod across scree and ice to the path back to base camp. Perhaps an hour or so away when fit and carrying a lightweight daysack, I knew it would be a struggle of several hours and lots of rest stops as I was utterly exhausted.
I was so glad Rehman, the base camp cook, had sent his cousin Ikram up to carry my rucksack back to base camp. At first I felt reticent about passing my enormous rucksack over to him. I felt it would be cheating not to struggle with it for the last few hours, I also thought it would be too heavy for him. How wrong I was. Ikram was as fit and agile as a mountain goat and he sped off towards basecamp like he was carrying a daysack. I followed on behind as if towed by his tailwind, imagining the egg, chips and cups of tea waiting for me.
I had just two days rest at base camp before tackling the steep path back down the Diamir Valley to Chilas and the KKH to Islamabad. My right big toe felt a bit numb when I reached Chilas. It was affected by the cold and the pounding downhill, as well as being bitten by the sandflies, causing my foot to swell up.
It was in Chilas that I met my first group of Brit's - two trekking parties, including Trail magazine readers, on their way to Stardu, the Baltoro, concordia and K2 base camp.
Unshaven, 10 kg's lighter and extremely tired, I felt I was travelling incognito. yet their first greeting was "Have you done it"?. For a minute I wondered what they were talking about. Done what? then I realised. Yes, I had done it. i had climbed Nanga Parbat - the killer mouintain - and lived to tell the tale.