A deflowering, nepalese style

November 2016, Nepal, Khumbu valley. A team comprising of three guides wanted to try the first ascent of the south-west face of Pumori (7 164 m) on skis : Erin Smart, American, Paul Bonhomme, Dutch, and myself, a Gravarote by adoption. Despite serious preparation and exceptional weather conditions our trio returned empty handed but strangely, in one piece. A tale of a (beautiful) goal.

This article was published in Vertical Magazine N°61

It was a long term project for Paul. « June 2008… Jean-Noël Urban disappeared in a crevasse in the middle of the Gasherbrum massif, Pakistan. It was with him that, for three years, I went on expeditions, it was with him that my brother fell not far from there in 1998. Autumn 2008, I called Nicolas Brun, Jean-No’s other expedition accomplice. We were looking for an expedition which would pay tribute to him. So for that reason, I began to search for the faces to ski down, for sure in Nepal so as not to remind Nico of the horror of the disappearance which he had experienced directly when at Jean-No’s side on Gasherbrum. A few months later, with several propositions under my arm, I went to see Nico in Serre-Chevalier. Between Pumori and Himlung Himal; that year we decided upon Himlung.

Autumn 2009 therefore, in the company of Nicolas Brun, we signed the first integral descent Himlung Himal from the summit to the base camp in a short ten days.

2011… the south-west face of Pumori the idea of which we had abandoned and which was still trotting around inside my head. I reran the project with Nico and bingo, he accepted! This time we wanted to share the trek with friends, so there were five of us who left for base-camp. The cold of base-camp and the difficulties encountered to find the access to the face meant that we had left empty handed, without even having put skis on our feet. On the contrary the experience proved unique for our friends and marked them for life. »

2016, Paul wanted to go and do something. He was handing in his notice to the SNGM’s executive committee and wanted to do something. He wanted to return to Nepal to see the extent of the disaster of 2015. After several questions about a possible solo expedition, Paul contacted me. We had met three years previously at a round table event about the evolution of the job of being a guide. Then a second time at the Piolet d’Or where we had smoked fags and knocked back several litres of beverages while putting the world to rights. Clearly we had never done anything in the mountains together. He explained the project to me. It was gripping but frightening! The 1 300 metre face seemed to tilt at more than an average 45° ! I explained that my companion might be interested in the project. A few emails and couple of telephone calls later we bought our tickets for Katmandu. Pumori 2016 was launched !

November 1st we landed in Nepal. Paul was on his ninth visit to the land of Buddha, for Erin and myself it was a discovery and the hallucinations that go with it. What a country! We had followed all the advice on the steps to take by using a local agency to organise everything. Luckily that we did or the expedition would have ended in Kathmandu. The evening before the flight for Lukla a strange combination of circumstances for three anonymous alcoholics led us to go to sleep in a trance at 3:30 in the morning while we had to leave the hotel at 5:00…. Thanks to the agency who almost came to get us out of bed, we found ourselves catapulted in less than two hours into a plane which was approaching a runway which appeared vertically in front of the cockpit. Welcome to the Tenzing-Hillary airport, one of the most dangerous airports in the world. The Nepalese who met us talked some sense in to us: between the earthquake, the « disappearance » of the NGO’s money, the Indian blockade the decrease, by 40%, of tourism in 2015… They nevertheless kept smiling : « We helped each other, within the family, amongst villagers, the agency helped a bit too, we are gradually rebuilding… we were lucky, nobody died around us… » We are in the Sulu Khumbu region much less affected than Langtang where entire villages disappeared. And, actually, nothing has changed in the behaviour of the Nepalese, still obliging, generous and happy, they are just a little more watchful of the slopes which could fall onto them, they just listen in a little more carefully as soon as any suspect rumbling is heard…

Entering the Khumbu valley is a bit like opening half my library. Ama Dablam, Everest, Nuptse, Lhotse, Baruntse, Cholatse… They are there and their fantastic histories came back to mind. I dreamed as I walked. Jeff Lowe spent nine days here in winter and several years previously the French had had serious problems for the ascent of a sacred summit like Taboche. Each face has its history and it is inevitably mythic. In this same valley there are around five hundred tourists who arrive each day. Tourism was better that year. As in 2011 Paul caught a stinking cold during the trek. The evenings were punctuated by sessions of rummy and inhalations of essential oils. It was a great start … After seven days and a last meal in the Gorak Shep (5 164 m) lodge, we headed off like zombies with the idea of finding a place for base camp. I was so bad that I was overtaken by the yaks and I couldn’t even keep up with them…

Around two hundred and fifty metres higher a magnificent ice-covered lake appeared before us. Despite an altitude almost too high for a base camp it was a place to die for. We installed the camp with Bhim (the cook) and Ram Sharan (the assistant). In the time it took us to erect two tents they had installed three, dug a toilet hole, heated some water and served tea with little cakes. Those two were only to impress us by their kindness, professionalism and smiles which they had every morning despite the cold, altitude and various illnesses they were to succumb to throughout the expedition. Before even finishing this narrative I would like to thank them from the bottom of my heart, without them this expedition would never have happened. After several days we climbed in the direction of the face to find a place to install the 1st camp. Paul recounts : « We were loaded (between 25 and 35 kilos) and I was full of doubts about the access. In 2011 we made a u-turn at the foot of a great zone blocked by seracs. Happily my assumptions were good : one could pass to the left of the glacier which blocked the access to the slope, we found two pitons certainly left by Ueli Steck who had already done this face twice. » This ascent was one of the most laborious of my life. I was not yet acclimatised and clearly at war with my body. Nothing was going right. With difficulty we climbed at less than two hundred metres an hour towards a ledge on the glacier.

Saturday, 12th November the 1st camp was set up at 5 800 m on the right bank of the glacier. Erin was really ill and we had already given our antibiotics to Bhim who was even more ill at base camp. Paul and I had heads ready to explode. Slowly we looked for an access to the foot of the face from the advance camp. It was a field of crevasses but not like those one finds in Europe. Here everything is oversized when we speak of mountains, glaciers and crevasses. With a lot of luck and a little intuition we found the exit to the labyrinth at around 6000 metres.

We went back down our tracks to base camp : bodies had been well tested by a bad night and the load-bearing the previous day, rest was necessary. But there, at 5 400 m, even if one did nothing, rest is relative, above all with the remnants of a heavy cold for Paul and Erin. A window in the weather was nevertheless identified between two passages of the jet-stream (strong winds at high altitude) : this would be for Friday 18th or Saturday 19th November.

The climb to the 1st camp Thursday 17th was nothing : the packs were light and the six days of acclimatisation had nonetheless had their effect. From 5 hours 30, the stage between base camp and the 1st camp was devoured in 2 hours 30! We had the impression that the good weather would be with us the next day. Michael, our weather planner, told us that the break was for a day, after which the jet stream was to show its face and with it lower temperatures and high winds at altitude. This, then, would be for the Friday. For the following day, based on Paul’s previous experience, we decided on a 5am start, just an hour before sunrise so as not to be too frozen. I had estimated an ascent of five hours, if we were fit. But there, we weren’t as fit as we had believed, and the face was steeper than we had estimated. I had slept and I had thrown-up my breakfast virtually before leaving the camp. Would the jet-stream arrive sooner? It was freezing ! Paul seemed to be on form and didn’t have cold feet however he moved maybe forward too fast from the beginning. The timing we had decided upon didn’t leave us much margin for error and as soon as the face was in the sun, it would become more and more dangerous. It was therefore necessary to move forwards.

A little after the bergschrund, the first decision was made. I yelled : « Paul ! Erin and I are turning back ! » I had vomited and Erin was ill. Once on the face, being able to pull with my arms I felt a lot better but Erin could no longer feel her feet. We had decided, the two of us previously, that if one of us wanted to turn back, then both of us would do so in order to be safer. Erin told me that I could continue if I wanted to but I knew that our ambition of skiing the face would be impossible in the current conditions, the snow was transforming to ice. Furthermore by quickly recalculating our schedule I knew that it would be tight if we didn’t want to find ourselves in the midst of the south-facing slope in full sun in the middle of the afternoon. I preferred to head towards the bottom. All the same we put on our skis while on the bergschund and skied what has to have been the worst snow/ice of our lives. I spent my afternoon in the tent following Paul heading towards the summit and asked myself seriously if I was going to see him again. I will leave him the chance to explain.

« I was therefore alone on this immense south-westerly face, a thousand metres high and just as wide… I could no longer see my friends. However I pushed forwards, front points obligatory : the exposed snow in the west was icy on contrary to that which was exposed on the east which was like sugar… I preferred the west even if my calves were screaming. Rats it was truly steeper than anticipated ! Apart from several short sections of around 40°, the average slope was more between 45°, with at each traverse little streams of ice, to passages of 50° or more, with rubbish snow.

I thought about my mate Alain Duclos : uh, Alain, in this case I won’t look for the fragile layers eh, you won’t want me to, will you? The large traverse above the streams of ice towards 6 500 metres went relatively well. I relaxed and I managed from to time to place ten points in order to be it bit more at ease. But then : the traverse finished at about 6 600m with about twenty metres of blue ice at about 80° and a passage between rocks,where the sugar came above my knees. Skis on my back, I finished this 50 or so metres completely rung out both physically and mentally. And to think that it would be necessary to go back in the opposite direction!

6 600 m : I had a rest, I filmed for a moment. I could see the base camp, the top of the Khumbu valley, Lobuche, I could see the life below. My heart was cool, my head was good and I was lucid. I continued, I was still on time, it was 9 o’clock and, everything was going well, at 10 o’clock I was on the shoulder below the last, less steep, slopes.

I started off again… ten metres higher I stopped : was there nothing left in the machine or what ?! A strange feeling started to insinuate itself in my skull, everything was fine I wasn’t progressing. Shit, after all the training in the summer and autumn, was it the machine which was going to say stop ? I continued, I had confidence in the machine… from ten metres to ten metres then five and five. Time was passing, 10 o’clock, I had a done hundred metres in more than thirty minutes and I was shattered : it was no longer working ! I started to be behind time and it was hot ! I took off my down jacket and gloves. A few lumps of ice fell above me, I had to make a decision there and then ! I had the impression that a dead end was not far away.

Ten minutes later, after a few gulps of tea, it was decided/ I was going down. Three steps downwards and I had the impression that the machine had re-engaged, I would try to go up once more : no, I decided to go down, not to be an idiot !

I made the descent.

Some ten metres lower down, I realised how exhausted I was : I wasn’t making any headway ! « For Christ’s sake! » I was going down but in slow motion ! Front points, in reverse, I needed to watch my footing. I was hyper concentrated, if I fell, it would have been a thousand metres free fall without a parachute. Half an hour later, I once again arrived at appalling passage. Firstly a pause, three steps, four strikes of the axe in the blue ice, I was huffing and puffing, I had done well to go down : it was going to take time to get myself out of this bullshit ! Altitude 6 500 m… it was going better. I decided to put my skis on : the shards of ice on the surface had no real consistency and I would be more at ease with skis on my feet, anyway that was what I thought.

I attached my pack to one of my ice-axes, I attached myself to the other and, gently, I put on my skis one after the other on this slope of 45-50°. A minuscule platform of 40 by 30 centimetres with the tips and heels of the skis in the void, between 15 and 20 minutes to put them on : a record ! I locked the bindings and pushed gently on the upper pole (I had the ice-axe in the other hand), above all I didn’t want to have a surprise ! The snow was hard, very hard. With honeycombed ice on the surface, the grip was sufficient for traversing but wrecked my legs, I really had no more drive. Four minutes of a hyper terrifying traverse later, I was decided : I had to stop my foolishness ! The slightest turn would be suicidal.

15 minutes of manipulations later and I had my skis on my back and my crampons on my feet again. And too bad for this shitty snow, I was going to avoid it as much as possible, that was that ! I continued the descent like that, laboriously, while trying to remember my upward itinerary in that vast snow field which held absolutely no tracks. I went down, each step was tiring as the snow was difficult and errors impossible, on down, to eventually find Erin and Benj’s better marked tracks , I went on down, I passed the bergschund : it was finished.

Another good quarter of an hour battling to put my skis back on, on a fake level : I was exhausted. It took me another half an hour to reach the 1st camp on skis with difficulty, falling twice as my legs were no longer capable of anything.

1st Camp : Erin and Benj’ had waited for me before going down to base camp, I was happy, I had wanted to go on down…, but not alone ! I took on board the minimum and we headed to base camp. I was shattered but happy.

In the end, I hadn’t made a hash of it. I had gone as far as possible along the path of my dreams, as much physically as mentally, I had tried myself almost to the point of rupture and now one thing was sure : that face was not ready to be skied ! Anyway « by fair means » as they say : without a helicopter, oxygen, going back up before coming down, etc. it needed a « Steck-Lécluse » (Ueli Steck – Rémy Lécluse), with, at the minimum; exceptional conditions.

So, I will leave my dream for others who will try, and who will, maybe, one day be able to make the descent of this exceptionally beautiful and logical face, in my opinion one of the most beautiful faces in the world. Because it is what we do up there, whether we succeed or not, we are just sowers of seeds for dreams … for others who in their turn dream as well.
hat is what we did on Pumori, it is what I try to do on a daily basis. Just to stay alive and continue dreaming ! »


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