Holecek and Hruby climb north face of Talung in alpine-style

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 28/06/2013
Holecek climbing glassy ice on the lower section of Talung's north face. Zdenek Hruby
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With Zdenek Hruby, the accomplished Czech mountaineer Marek Holecek has made an alpine-style first ascent of the difficult north face of Talung (7,349m), a rarely climbed peak on the Nepalese-Sikkim border immediately south of Kangchenjunga.

On the north side of Talung are two spurs, both a little under 2,000m in height; the north-northwest pillar and to its right the less elegant, less well-defined northwest spur. They are clearly visible to climbers on the standard route up Kangchenjunga.

In autumn 2004 Holecek and Tomas Rinn, as part of a Czech expedition led by Martin Otta, had tried the pillar, climbing a series of hard runnels on the right flank to ca 5,800m.

It was extremely cold and Holecek, waiting on a hanging belay while Rinn led the difficult final pitch below the first bivouac ledge, sustained frostbite in his toes. Next day the pair bailed.

Holecek planned to return in 2008, an ascent of the pillar forming the third of his Triple North Walls project. However, after success on the first two (in Afghanistan and Pakistan), he had to cancel due to lack of sufficient funds.

In May 2013 the pair reached base camp in the Yalung Valley and acclimatized by climbing to 6,700m on the west face. They found deep snow, often up to their waists.

In contrast, they were subsequently amazed to discover that the north-northwest pillar was clear of snow, completely dry and rocky in its lower section, bearing no resemblance to its state in 2004.

The pillar was impractical so the pair were forced to look at the face to the left, which in the lower section is threatened by a large serac barrier.

After one attempt, they set off on the 15th, climbing steep hard water ice to a bivouac at 5,900m. Next day they bivouacked at 6,300m, finding a natural cave in a serac.

On the third day they climbed 15 hours, into the rocky headwall, to bivouac at 6,700m. They then found it took the whole of the fourth day to overcome a series of icy gullies through the headwall, at the top of which they bivouacked at 7,000m.

Next day a final ice slope, and a diedre through the summit rock band, led to the top. It was around midday and they quickly found themselves enveloped in cloud.

A difficult descent of the west face ensued, the pair hardly able to see beyond the tip of their noses. After a bivouac at 6,600m, they made it to base camp on the 20th.

Holecek and Hruby have named the route Thumba Party, after the classic Nepalese alcoholic drink made from fermented millet, a beverage which "makes travelling even more cheerful". Difficulties were rated at WI6 and M6+, and the length of the route around 2,500m.

This was only the fourth overall ascent of Talung, though exploration on the mountain, which has a rich British history, goes back almost 100 years.

It was first reconnoitred by Raeburn and Crawford in 1920, in those days approaching from Sikkim (British India).

It was almost climbed by John Kempe and Gilmour Lewis in 1953, and then attempted again by Kempe during the 1954 Kangchenjunga reconnaissance expedition.

In 1955 McKinnon and Mather, from Charles Evans's British Kangchenjunga expedition, were also unsuccessful, as was a team of Japanese in 1963.

The first ascent came from an primarily German expedition in 1964, Franz Lindner (Austrian) and Tenzing Nanda Sherpa reaching the summit. These two climbed the southwest flank to the upper west face, then slanted across it to the summit.

On a previous attempt Lindner had reached the col on the ridge leading to Kabru, and then continued north as far as the 7,180m south summit.

A second ascent was not made until 1991. Slovenians Marko Prezelj and Andrej Stremfelj climbed the west-northwest face to west face with just one bivouac, Prezelj reaching the summit in high winds while Stremfelj waited 50m below.

These two made only one bivouac and used Talung for acclimatization before making their historic alpine-style first ascent of the southwest ridge of Kangchenjunga South.

Japanese tried to repeat the Slovenian line in 2002, the same year that Martin Otta's expedition from the Czech Republic made its first attempt on the mountain.

Alena Cepelkova and Petr Kolouch tried the north-northwest pillar. They nearly climbed 500m to ca 5,900m but retreated, as unconsolidated snow over rock made the climbing too precarious.

Other climbers on the team attempted a new route on the left side of the west-northwest face, descending from 6,600m, while the remaining members more or less followed the 1991 Slovenian route, Petr Kolouch reaching the top to make the mountain's third ascent.

The north-northwest pillar was the object of desire for James Clapham, Gavin Pike and Dave Searle in November 2012. This team was supported by the Alpine Club, BMC, MEF, the 2012 Nick Estcourt Award, and a Mark Clifford Grant.

The three found the Yalung Glacier to be receding at an alarming rate, and after initially acclimatizing to 6,400m on the original route up the southwest face, arrived at the base of the pillar to find the pitch off the glacier bare and dangerous.

Sixty metres of vertical or overhanging rock with blobs of névé and no obvious protection did not appeal. They decided to switch to the less demanding northwest spur, but very high winds and low temperatures subsequently allowed no opportunity.



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