Remarkably, just a couple of weeks after Ueli Steck's ground-breaking solo ascent of Annapurna's south face, his route received a second ascent from experienced French alpinists Stéphane Benoist and Yannick Graziani.
It's hard to think of another occasion when a route of such magnitude and historic significance on a high Himalayan peak has been repeated so quickly after the event.
However, the story of Benoist and Graziani is very different from Steck's.
To acclimatize the pair made the first ascent of an unnamed peak of 6,505m, a fine summit on the eastern rim of the Annapurna Sanctuary, between Annapurna III and Gandarbha Chuli.
Benoist and Graziani climbed a prominent couloir on the southwest flank (700m, TD- with sections of 90°) and then spent two nights on the summit.
During their second night they received a text message from Steck (the original intention had been for all three climbers to share the same permit for Annapurna), saying he was going for the summit of Annapurna I that evening.
By the time they got down, Steck was already gone. Apparently he "ran" from base camp to Pokhara in one day. The French were amazed that Steck could have climbed the south face after just a single acclimatization trip to 6,500m.
A spell of bad weather now put down 30-40cm of snow on the south side of the Annapurna range, and the two French had to wait until the 17th October before starting their main ascent.
They took a different and safer line to Steck in the lower section, at first on or alongside the rocky spur on the left side of the main couloir, to reach a bivouac at ca 6,100m.
From there they slanted up and across the couloir (50-70°) to a safe bivouac site at ca 6,650m on the Japanese Pillar, a place they both knew from a previous attempt in 2010.
The weather now turned for the worse, with snow and wind. After spending three nights at this bivouac, eating, drinking and resting, the pair climbed up left to reach the foot of the rock barrier at ca 7,100m.
Here, with Benoist in the lead, they climbed four very difficult pitches. Two of these proved really taxing, with unprotectable, thin, delicate, vertical ice.
On the next day, having overcome more hard pitches (80-90°), they almost reached the top of the barrier, bivouacking at around 7,400m. In the middle section of the barrier, they noticed, over to the right, an old rigid stem Friend, and Karabiner, presumably remnants of the Béghin-Lafaille attempt. They also noted traces of Steck's passage at around 7,300m.
The following day the pair climbed several more hard pitches (the most difficult again led by Benoist) to bivouac at 7,550m, and the next day reached the summit.
They immediately began the descent to their 7,400m bivouac, but by this stage Benoist was in trouble, moving increasingly slowly. That night it turned windy, and the weather forecast promised snow.
Next day, with Graziani organizing the rappels, they descended below the foot of the rock barrier and, at Graziani's insistence, continued down into the night. By now they had no working torches, and Graziani would arrange the anchors by the light cast from a lit stove.
They continued through the night, with anchors becoming increasingly dubious, until their first bivouac site, where they slept for a few hours (their gas ran out at this point). Fortunately, the night had been calm, the forecast snow did not arrive, and Graziani was able to work with bare hands.
The pair reached the bergschrund on the 26th and then took six hours to cover the relatively short distance to advanced base. Realizing that neither climber, but particularly Benoist, could go no further, on the following day Graziani used a solar panel to charge the satellite phone and call for a helicopter.
On the 28th both Frenchmen were in Kathmandu, where Benoist would remain in hospital, receiving treatment for serious frostbite to both fingers and toes.
Graziani was more fortunate and appears to have escaped the ordeal more or less unscathed.
Although this ascent will obviously be completely overshadowed by Steck's, it's significance should not be underestimated.
Thanks to Rodolphe Popier for help with this report