South face of Gaurishankar finally climbed

Posted by Lindsay Griffin on 05/11/2013
The south face of Gaurishankar, showing the new French route. Mathieu Maynadier
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A coveted project, the south face of Gaurishankar in Nepal's Rolwaling Himal has finally been climbed by the four-man French team of Mathieu Détrie, Pierre Labbre, Mathieu Maynadier and Jérome Para.

After acclimatizing in the Rolwaling valleys, the team had to sit out almost three weeks of inclement weather before making the attempt.

Starting at 3:00am on the 20th October from a bivouac at 4,900m below the bergschrund, the four climbed the easier initial section of the wall, slanting right to gain a vague couloir towards the centre.

This they climbed with more difficulty, stopping at 5:00pm to bivouac at 5,900m.

Next day, getting up at 3:00am, they needed until 7:00pm to climb the next, difficult 600m, following a rightward slanting ramp above the couloir to a bivouac at 6,500m.

The final part of the ascent started well, but the team was then almost blocked two pitches below the top by a steep and difficult rock band. They lost much time trying several options before winning through, reaching the top of the face at 4:00pm, and a distinct sub summit of over 6,800m.

From this point, gentle snow slopes lead down and across a plateau before rising equally gently to the 7,010m south summit.

But there was no time, and at 5:00pm the team began an abseil descent, continuing through the night to reach the bottom of the face at 4:00am.

Sandwiched between the narrow southwest and southeast ridges, this is a steep 1900m face, particularly in the upper reaches, reflected by the name and technical grades of the route; Peine Prolongée (ED, WI5+, M5 and A1).

The rock throughout was poor, but fortunately the four were able to stick to ice most of the time.

Last year Labbre and Maynadier (the latter organizes the annual international ice climbing meet at Argentière-la-Bessée) took part in an impressive ascent of the southwest face of Latok II, and in 2011 Détrie and Maynadier were part of a team nominated for a Piolet d'Or for their ascent of the southwest face of Lunag I.

Visible from Kathmandu, Gaurishankar's twin summits were mistakenly considered by early explorers to be the highest in the world.

The northern and highest top, at 7,135m, is Shankar, an expression of Shiva, the god of creation: Gauri, the "golden goddess", is the 7,010m south top.

Although a holy mountain, foreign expeditions had been permitted to attempt it from the late 1950s. However, a later closure of Nepal's mountains meant that it was unattainable until 1979, when the government once again allowed foreign climbers on the peak, provided they were part of a joint expedition with Nepalese members.

Americans got the first permit in the spring, and completed what may have been the hardest technical route in the Himalaya at that time.

Using classic siege techniques, ropes were fixed most of the way up the centre of the imposing 2,800m west face, until John Roskelly and Pertemba Sherpa took off for the summit. There was ice/mixed climbing to 90° and an A3 overhang on the final rock band.

Roskelly thought the rock climbing was matched by that on his first ascent of the north ridge of Nanda Devi, but felt the ice climbing probably harder than anything yet done in the world at that altitude.

The route remains unrepeated, although in 1984 American Wyman Culbreth and Ang Kami Sherpa made a continuous capsule push to around two-thirds height, before breaking out right and climbing to the top.

Their line may be easier in the upper section, but it is much more exposed to objective danger. It has been repeated: Ang Kami Sherpa came back to the mountain in the winter of 1985-86 and in January, with Koran Choi Han-jo, made the first winter ascent of Gaurishankar via the 1984 route.

In 1979 the Americans had pipped a British expedition to the post, leaving Pete Boardman and his team to attempt an autumn ascent via a new route.

They chose the southwest ridge, which leads to the south summit. Moving in capsule style, Boardman, John Barry, Tim Leach, Guy Neithardt (Swiss) and Pemba Lama Sherpa, found the ridge very long, with exciting cornices.

When Barry took a fall high on the route, breaking his wrist, he remained in camp while the other four continued to the top of the tormented ridge and the the subsidiary top at around 6,800m.

After descending the broad snow plateau north, the four successfully reached Gauri via gentle slopes, 20 days after setting out on the route. They estimated it would take a further three-four days to traverse from here to the main summit.

In 1983 Gauri was reached again by a primarily Slovenian team that climbed the left side of the south face to reach the southwest ridge. The following year Japanese used 8,000m of fixed rope to overcome the convoluted southeast ridge. They reached Gauri, but by now had run out of time to continue further.

There have been other attempts that have accessed these ridges via the left or right extremities of the south face, but before this year perhaps only two real attempts to climb the face in its entirety. Poles tried in 1983 but bailed at around 6,000m, then in 2011 Stefan Glowacz and David Gottler were unable to climb past 5,100m due to terrible conditions on the wall.

In 1985 a Japanese pair tried to force a line direct to the southwest ridge at around 6,600m, left of the Polish attempt, but one fell to his death.

The south summit has not been reached since 1984; the main summit since the winter ascent of '86.



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