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Annapurna – final dispatch

Wir konnten heute zurück nach Kathmandu fliegen: Es ist Zeit für den letzten Bericht (ENG) von unserer Annapurna Expedition.

Dispatch no. 4 / final dispatch – written by Rick Allen:

We had successfully acclimatized on Tilicho Peak, moved to Annapurna N base camp and now everything hinged on the weather. We were really looking for an ideal ‘weather window’ of three days of low wind at 8000m combined with little or no precipitation. Gradually, it became clear it would not be happening. We lowered our expectations and grasped at the promise of a single day of low wind followed by a day of high snow fall. We set off on Wednesday, 17th May on our pure ‘alpine style’ attempt on the NW face of Annapurna. Alpine style is often equated with light-weight style but as we shouldered our 23kg+ packs, the lightness was difficult to appreciate. Our route, paradoxically, led us first down to the glacial lakes at the foot of the N Annapurna glacier, 200m below our base camp (4100m) before climbing slowly over boulder strewn terrain leading towards the moraines below our face. The glacier is extremely fractured and we toiled over alternating rock strewn ridges and abrupt, icy slopes separating deep fissures of crevasses before emerging onto more snowy glacier in the late afternoon. Here, as the characteristic snow shower passed, we pitched our 3 person tent on a flat spot around 5000m and caught the last rays of the evening sun.

An hour next morning took us to the base of a huge triangular buttress and an icy couloir running up its right hand side. We crossed the bergschrund (major crevasse) which separates the glacier from face and began to climb. This was to be the last moment for the next 3 days we had flat ground the size of six boot prints under our feet. The couloir started as a snow slope but increasingly hard icy streaks predominated at an average of about 55 degrees. It was also long, longer than we had estimated and the afternoon snow showers were well developed as we approached its top. No break in the angle provided any relief for a bivouac site so we began to cut a ledge in the ice at the foot of a rock wall where we could secure the rope. Torrents of spindrift poured intermittently down the wall and during these interludes we variously crouched or hung on, alert to the possibility that a full airborne avalanche may develop. At sunset, the snow relented once more and we had a glimpse of the sun and the Eastern flanks of Dhaulagiri. Finally, we had a ledge for half a tent and we could sit in a row, belayed inside our tent fabric with a single pole keeping it off our faces with our legs hanging free. We cooked a simple meal and brewed many hot drinks before lapsing into fitful rest. Through the tiny vent we watched a clear, starlit night develop over the central Nepal Himalaya.

Getting moving in the morning was slow as we melted more snow for hot drinks, carefully unwound our safety lines which attached everything to the wall and ourselves and packed our sacks. The icy slope slanted right from the top of the couloir and we chose to rope up from the start, one climber leading and placing ice screws as the other two followed simultaneously. Whether because of the sleepless night, the effect of two days effort or the brittle, thin ice over rock, we were moving more slowly than the day before and yet again the snowfall began and we had no-where to place a tent. The descending spin drift clouds added urgency to our search and one hour before dark we tried to make something of a sloping rock ledge at 6500m. This sloped alarmingly and gathered so much snow that at the end we were hanging in our harnesses from our belay points, shrouded in tent fabric. No question of removing our boots to change into dry socks, adding warm clothing and only with the greatest efforts by Felix did we manage to melt some snow to produce a drink. By contrast, the sitting bivouac of the previous night had been luxurious. We constantly disturbed one another as we sought to shift our positions to alter the pressure of harnesses on our bodies and shivering became almost constant. When one careless movement produced a rip in the tent ( not designed to be hung exactly like this) we suddenly had a new view of the world, through the hole in floor to the glacier far below. Things deteriorated overnight as we lost one sleeping mat to the abyss and in the morning as we began to extricate ourselves from the bivouac, one sleeping bag slipped through the cellar door and disappeared. It was an open question up to this point whether we should continue upwards or descend. On the one hand, we had climbed half the face, we had confidence we could handle the technical difficulties and we ample food and gas for several more days. However, the incessant afternoon snowfall was alarming, we had slowed on the second day and after two practically sleepless nights we were not going to accelerate. From here onwards, retreat would become much more serious and breaking through to the summit ridge would require full commitment. The loss of one member’s sleeping bag tilted the argument firmly in favour of descent. Multiple nights above 6500m without a bag would be impractical, even if we could find tent sites in the steep terrain above us, which seemed unlikely.

Nine hours, 20 rappels from ‘Abalakov’ ice belays and several pitches of downclimbing later, we were back on the glacier, not a little relieved and glad to pitch our wounded tent on some flat snow. As we cooked up the first meal for two days, the sound of powder snow avalanches pouring down the face confirmed our decision to descend. Another full day took us back down the glacier and its moraines to the welcoming tents of base camp. Toiling back up from the glacial lakes, as the evening sleet continued, it became clear there never really was a ‘summit weather window’

Gipfel des Annapurna I mit Schneefahnen; Author: Felix Berg
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Conclusion: Louis Rousseau and Adam Bielecki had conceived of a new route on Cho Oyu. They invited Rick Allen and Felix Berg to join them. Bureacratic obstacles had frustrated the original vision but a new objective had been formulated. Time constraints had taken Louis home early but Adam, Felix and Rick successfully climbed Tilicho Peak. They climbed half of the extremely serious NW face of Annapurna I before retreating in bad weather. The decision making on this kind of enterprise is crucial and most of us would say we would only contemplate such a route with someone we have climbed with extensively. Adam, Felix and Rick had never climbed together before but would gladly do so again. That is one measure of success.

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