Making his third visit to the Arwa Valley, Swiss Roger Schäli has made the first free ascent of his own route on the north face of the Arwa Spire (6,193m), a spectacular triple-summited rock and ice monolith in the Indian Himalaya.
The Arwa Valley lies in the Western Garhwal, north of the holy Hindu temple of Badrinath. It was a visit in the late 1990s by Indian Himalaya guru Harish Kapadia, who brought back stunning photos of the Arwa Tower and Spire, that first attracted a certain Mick Fowler.
With Kenton Cool, Crag Jones and Stephen Sustad he gained permission to climb in the valley during the spring of 1999.
Fowler and Sustad were successful on the higher Arwa Tower (6,352m), climbing it by the 1,000m northwest face at British 5b, A3 and Scottish V/VI. Cool and Jones made two attempts on the north side of the Spire (6,193m) but failed to summit.
Undeterred Cool returned the following year with Andy and Pete Benson, Ian Parnell, Al Powell and Dave Wills. Various lines were tried before the Bensons made the first ascent of the East Summit of the Spire via the east ridge (TD+). Cool and Parnell followed several days later.
In 2002 it was the turn of climbers from the Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne (GMHM), who put up two new routes on the Tower, and made a fast repeat of the British route on the east ridge of the Spire.
It was during all this French activity that young Swiss guides Stephan Harvey, Bruno Hasler and Roger Schäli arrived in the valley, with the aim of putting up a new route or two on the unclimbed north face of the Spire.
The three first attempted the prominent north couloir of the unclimbed Central Summit, fixed some rope, and then set off with a portaledge. Moving out right from the top of the couloir, they found the rock too cold and snowy to free climb in rock shoes, so aided four pitches to reach easier ground and the summit, which they felt was probably the highest of the three.
They celebrated their success with the Italian Grappa, Fior di Vite, which became the name of the route. The difficulties were rated at 80° VI+ and A2, and the line 800m in length..
They then turned their attention to the unclimbed West Summit and made a classic siege ascent, initially by the north couloir (attempted in 2000 by Powell and Wills) and then the barrel-shaped rock buttress to the right. They took seven days to reach the summit via Capisco (A3 and M6+). Later, these ascents were nominated for the Piolet d'Or.
The Huber brothers hoped to free climb Capisco in 2005, but although they were able to make the second ascent of the route, poor weather forced them to use aid.
In 2002 Schäli was only 23 and the whole experience was new, but by 2011 he and Italian partner Simon Gietl felt the time was right to transfer their vision of alpine style free climbing at lower altitudes to the rock and ice faces of the Himalaya.
Schäli wanted to try Fior di Vite again and the two arrived with cameraman Daniel Ahnen. However, in the early stages of the expedition, Ahnen and a companion were walking towards the face in order to capture pictures, when at ca 5,400m Ahnen fell 50m into a deep crevasse.
For five days, with the help of the Indian military, the climbers tried to rescue Ahnen, but were unable to make any voice or visual contact. The expedition was abandoned, and for Schäli the weeks after this tragic accident proved the most difficult of his life.
Nonetheless, this autumn Gietl and Schäli were back, now accompanied by experienced climber and cameraman Frank Kretschmann and guide Andrea di Donato.
Conditions were better, though it proved a cruel fight against freezing fingers, and cold feet in rock shoes. Placing solid natural gear was often very difficult. But the 800m route was free climbed, to the summit, by Gietl and Schäli at 90° M6 and 7a.