Traversing the Mazeno Ridge to the summit of Nanga Parbat (8125m) was one of the outstanding ascents of 2012, and a rare recent success for a British team on an 8,000-metre peak. Katy Dartford talks to Sandy Allan and Rick Allen about their success, and appearing at the Piolets d’Or.
The ascent was a triumph for veteran Himalayan activists Sandy Allan and Rick Allen. Setting camps on the ridge to acclimatise, they and team-mates Cathy O’Dowd, Lhakpa Rangdu Sherpa, Lhakpa Zarok Sherpa and Lhakpa Nuru Sherpa crossed all eight summits of the ridge to reach the Mazeno Col.
From a bivouac at 7,200m they made an unsuccessful attempt on the unclimbed continuation of the ridge direct to the top. At this point all but Allan and Allen gave up. O’Dowd and the Sherpas made a difficult descent of the Rupal face. The British pair eventually traversed the north flank to the summit and descending the Kinshofer route reaching the Diamir face base camp after a traverse lasting 18 days.
Katy Dartford (KD): Where did you two meet?
Sandy Allan (SA): Rich and I were both coming back and forth from Chamonix and I knew there was another climber from Aberdeen doing a lot so we kept leaving notes for each other but we never actually met. Then in 1985 Mal Duff invited us both on a trip to Everest and that’s when we both started climbing together.
KD: You’d been thinking about the Mazeno ridge for a long time.
SA: Doug Scott invited us on an expedition in 1995.
KD: What’s it like thinking about something for that amount of time?
SA: I suppose if you’ve got a brain as simple as mine it’s no problem at all.
Rick Allen (RA): In 1995 with Andrew Lock we were successful and got about a third of a way along the ridge and retreated.
SA: We got to the point of no return and we really thought it was quite impossible. We were left with the impression that it was really, really serious and not a place to go but it was always in the back of my mind that I wanted to go back. But we thought why waste our time going somewhere that wasn’t impossible but really, really difficult so we put it on the back burner. But it was always there.
KD: It’s a route that takes experience and knowledge?
RA: It’s a route that’s attracted a lot of people. Over the last 20 years there have been 10 or so attempts by some of the best climbers of our generation. They’ve all been unsuccessful so we just kept thinking about it. Then we had an opportunity in 2009 to climb Nanga Parbat with an Austrian friend from the Diamir side and were successful in doing that. It gave us the opportunity to talk endlessly about how we’d go back to Mazeno ridge and how we’d approach it differently and have a better chance of success.
SA: Even when we were on the Diamir we were frustrated and kept thinking why are we here when we can see that fantastic ridge over there. We were thinking about changing our permit to get onto the Mazeno ridge but then we thought that’s a bit silly. We may as well get to know the Diamir well because we’d need to know it for the way down and we thought it would be good homework for the future. We tried to go again but I’m a mountain guide and really short of money and Rich has a hard, important job for an oil company so it’s hard to get lots of time off and enough money.
KD: Is it a technically a hard route ?
SA: It’s a really sharp ridge and really committing. The Americans who attempted it graded it some crazy hard grade, which is probably realistic depending on how much snow is on the route at the time and on which route you actually take. We gave it Scottish IV but at 7,000 metres mixed grade IV is pretty hard. It’s not just a snow plod. It starts that way but then it soon changes into serious ground with huge drops down either side. It’s inescapable.
RA: It’s the seriousness of the route that marks it out. It’s being long and inescapable and relatively technically challenging that makes it so serious.
SA: Rick and I were both on the [then] unclimbed north-east ridge of Everest where Joe Tasker and Pete Boardman died and thought that was really serious and committing but in actual fact although Everest is higher I actually felt the level of commitment on the Mazeno was way, way higher.
RA: I agree.
KD: So after 13 days the rest of the team decided to head down. What made you stay?
SA: For me, it was really simple. I just didn’t want to get up early and rush away. That night I had the most fantastic sleep and woke up feeling so refreshed. The Sherpas and Cathy had already decided the day before that they were going to go down. Rick and I had semi-agreed we’d go down with them but we knew really we didn’t want to give up yet. At that point when we stayed and said goodbye, we didn’t know if we would continue. But we didn’t want to rush the decision. That’s why we kept a satellite phone, to communicate with the rest of the team and during the day we actually decided we were going to stay and give it another try
KD: You were without food for five days and water for three.
SA: Rick can’t cook anyway so it didn’t matter. Well, at high altitude you don’t process food that well so it’s kind of cosmetic. It doesn’t do you a lot of good. The serious issue was hydration. I remember my first MEF meeting and a famous climber and doctor Mike Ward said the most important thing about the Himalaya is to drink lots of water. That’s always been a really big thing in my head. You need about 7-8 litres a day at over 7,000 metres.
RA: I agree with that. The reality is you lose your appetite. Even though you are desperate for calories, it’s difficult to get them down and keep them down as your body has difficulties processing them.
KD: How was it reaching the summit?
SA: It was pretty ace – really, really nice. We arrived at the location of the summit at about 2pm in the afternoon. It was really misty and we were very close but we couldn’t recognise it. We wondered about this arête with lots of little peaks and then at about 5.30pm the mists cleared and we could see where we needed to be. We had to break trail again for about 100 metres. I was just all done in and if it wasn’t for Rick breaking trail there…
KD: How did the rest of the team feel?
SA: They had reached their limit and abandoned all hope of reaching the summit and the attempt that made the day before was really a sterling effort so I think they had no options. They wanted to go down, they had reached their limits for what they could do.
KD: There were lots of great nominations for the Piolets d’Or. Why do you think this stands out?
SA: I don’t know if it does stand out, but we’ve unlocked a huge problem that’s been an issue for people for a long, long time. Whether ours deserves an award compared to others – that is a moot point and it’s something I have really been toiling with. It’s great to be acknowledged by our peers but to say a climb is better than another is a bit silly and materialistic.
RA: A lot of amazing routes are represented here. Ours may not be as technically hard but its higher, longer and more serious. So how are people going to make up their mind about what’s worthier? I’m glad I’m not on the jury.
KD: What do you think of awards like this. Is there a point to them ?
SA: I just climb because I love climbing. I’ve climbed with Marko Prezelj a lot of times and he refused his award. I wouldn’t do that. I think it’s nice that everyone’s gone to this effort and we are all here in Chamonix is good. But I don’t think mountaineering is a place for such awards. Acknowledgment from your peers is nice and that’s enough.
RA: It means more to be nominated than to win. Everyone’s done amazing routes and it’s hard to judge between them. But it’s nice as it is your peers saying you’ve done something outstanding.
KD: What’s next on your list?
SA: We do have plans for other climbs. Whether we’ve got the energy or will to do it is debatable right now but I thought when I came back from Nanga Parbat that I had really fed the rat. I was in Australia working in the same industry as Rick and thought I could lie on a beach. But then I saw some hills and realised how much I missed it. I stopped work and came back to Scotland and have been guiding and ice climbing and have been doing some new routes. I’m pretty fired up to do some new things.
RA: My toes got pretty cold on this last trip in 2012 so this year I’m taking it a bit easy and not going back to high altitude to let my toes recover. But I have high hopes of doing something interesting in 2014.
KD: There are not many women here? Why?
RA: There is Cathy O’Dowd who joined us. She was on our team and got all away along the ridge with us and had a good crack at the summit. It’s great she could come here and take part. There are fewer women preforming at the top end of extreme alpinism but you’ve only got to look at the panel of judges. There’s a woman there who’s climbed all 14 8,000-metre peaks, so it’s not a game exclusively for men. There are women out there who perform at the highest level.
SA: I know lots of especially Canadian and some French and British women who are incredible climbers. There are some who may not want to rough it in the Himalaya for a few weeks, but some of them do. Maybe they decide there’s more to life than whacking your head against a brick wall. I wish I was as intelligent as they were.