December & January… 1981/82
In the winter of 1981/82, Ned Gillette, Jan Reynolds, Jim Bridwell, Steve McKinney and myself, Craig Calonica went to Nepal for the first time, to climb a new route on Pumori, a 7,161 m (23,494 ft) high peak which sits across from Everest.
After the climb we were going to do a ski tour from Ama Dablam to Makalu base camp which consisted of crossing three 20,000 ft. passes, all during the winter climbing season. If successful it would be the first time anyone climbed a first ascent via new route in the history of Nepal’s winter climbing season.
The head Lama forbid the Sherpa’s to climb during the winter months because he said it would anger the gods, and so they were only allowed to go to base camp, which was fine with us because it was the way we always climbed anyway.
We had no form of modern day communications, nor did we have a satphone, our only form of communication was to have one of our base camp Sherpa’s run some letters or message to Lukla and put it on a flight addressed to our agent in Kathmandu, who would either put the letters in the mail bound for family and friends at home in the US or answer the question we asked agency. Eventually we’d receive either a letter from family or friends or a reply from the agency.
This was true adventure, we were on our own, no Sherpa support on the climb and no communications.
We were 100% committed and were on our own, which is the way climbing should be.
Unfortunately it’s not like that today, people are almost being carried up the climbs, they’re posting live selfies and calling home from the summit of Everest, and getting rescued via a helicopter at 7,800 meters, many times within minutes after getting into trouble, times have changed and not necessarily for the better.
To add to the excitement, we had massive avalanches coming down all around us the entire time, it was like being in a war zone.
For some unknown reason, every time I passed through this section we crossed to get to our ropes near the bottom of the climb some bowling balls sized rocks would come flying down a 6,000 ft ice and rock face above us and straight at me.
It always happened when I was crossing a 55 degree ice slope with a 500 ft cliff wall below me, if the rock didn’t kill me when it hit me the fall I would take off the 500 ft wall would.
That said, as I was crossing this section I could always hear the rocks coming down the face, they’d fly off this little rock wall 200 ft above me and come flying at me like missile’s at maximum free fall speed.
This one day about 30 rocks came flying off the wall all at the same time and straight at me… dodging wasn’t an option, and so I dropped to the ground, and hid behind my backpack, sunk my ice ax into the ice slope and hung on hoping I wouldn’t get hit as I don’t think the backpack was going to protect me much if one of those rocks hit me.
They were big and going well over 120 mph. If one hit me I would have been splattered like a bug on a wind shield.
Luckily none of the rocks hit me, which surprised me as there were so many of them that I was sure I was going to get hit.
The strange thing about this about this entire situation is the rocks only came flying off only when I was crossing that section, they never came off when any of the others crossed it. It was like the Himalaya was trying to tell me something, it clearly was giving me a warning and letting me know what I was getting myself into.
That said, this year was my 39th year in the Himalaya, and after many expeditions including trying to ski Everest from the summit three times, and opening up Nepal to skiing and making hundreds of first descents, I believe I heeded the warning well.
After several days on the climb, we made it to the summit and about one hour after we were back at base camp, we were talking about how protected the route was from avalanches, as these giant avalanches were constantly coming off the peak all around us, but never on our route, other then my ordeal with the rocks anyway.
Just minutes after saying that a giant avalanche came down and wiped out our entire route, had we still been there they probably would have never found us to this day, as the avalanche was massive. It went down a 8,000 ft face and continued across a half mile wide valley and went 5,000 ft up the face of giant peak on the other side of the valley. It left a massive white billowing thunder heard type cloud of snow over 9,000 ft high that remained in the air for what seemed forever.
The end result was that we managed to pull off the first winter ascent via a new route in the history Nepal’s Himalaya.
Next up, the crossing of the passes…
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