Team: Mark Synnott, Kevin Thaw, Jared Ogden
When: September-October 2000
Where: Kanchenjunga area, Nepal Himalaya
Sponsor: The North Face
Jared Ogden, Kevin Thaw and I arrived in Kathmandu on September 9th. Our plan for this post monsoon season was an ambitious one: the first ascent of the north face of Jannu (aka Khumbukarna). At 7710 meters, Jannu is the 38th tallest peak in the world. The mountain has been ascended perhaps two dozen times, but despite numerous attempts by some of the world’s best climbers, the unrelentingly steep 10,000 foot north face had remained a true last great problem in the himalayas. Although we all knew that our chances of pulling off such an outrageous ascent were slim, this face had been on our tick list for many years. In fact, Jared had already attempted the same face in 1997, but unfortunately the team fell apart due to personality conflicts.
Normally, it’s a 12-13 day hike to get into Jannu base camp, which is located in the far northeastern corner of Nepal, directly adjacent to Kanchenjunga, which is the third tallest mountain in the world. In fact, Jannu is part of the Kanchenjunga massif, and from a distance it appears merely as one of this sprawling peak’s many summits. Kevin and I heard a lot about the approach from Jared, who filled us with tales of knee deep bushwacking through leech infested swamps. In early September, the monsoon is still in full swing and it rains everyday. So on Jared’s recommendation, we hired a helicopter instead of making the hike, effectively reducing a two week march down to a three hour sight seeing trip. We sent our porters off ahead of time with all of the food and climbing equipment, then we hopped on the chopper in Kathmandu on September 12th.
Jared, who lives at 7,000 feet in Colorado, was planning to chopper straight into base camp at 14,700 feet, but I wasn’t sure because I live near sea level and this seemed like a lot of elevation to gain in just a few hours time. The pilot ended up dropping Kevin and I in the village of Ghunsa, at 10,000 feet elevation. From Ghunsa it is a mellow two day walk into camp. Surrounded by a majority of the 300 or so people who live in this beautiful mountan village, we waved goodbye to Jared and headed up the trail to a guest house.
Kevin and I hired two local sherpas to help us with our loads and show us the way to camp. We left the next morning and followed a raging river that flows out of the glaciers below Kanchenjunga. At the edge of the Jannu glacier we had to ford a crazy waist deep stream. I linked arms with Sherpa Chattandandu nd we barely made it aross. We dropped off the side of the glacier into a lush alpine meadow in which many yaks were grazing. There were two small stone huts with smoke rising from their roofs. We spent the night in the yak meadow, but Kevin and I both had trouble sleeping on account of mild altitude sickness. We could only imagine how Jared must be feeling, more than 3000 feet above us.
In the morning, Kevin and I crawled out of our Assault tent and got our first view of Jannu towering over the end of the valley. One look at the face and we both looked at each other and said “Oh shit!” The north wall of Jannu was completely white, plastered under a uniform sheet of snow. We had heard that the monsoon this year had been particularly heavy, but we never imagined the face could look this bad. ” It’s totally and completely out of condition, ” I said to Kevin. “You’re absolutely right,” he replied.
A few minutes later the face went back into the clouds and we were left dejected. With our headaches, lack of sleep, and the obvious poor condition of the face, it was hard to feel upbeat. We spent the rest of the day and that night huddled in the smoky rack herders hut, drinking unpasteurized yak milk tea and praying we wouldn’t get really sick. In the morning we followed a meadow on the edge of the glacier and three hours later, in the pouring rain, we arrived in basecamp, home to a solitary yellow tent where Jared had been hanging out by himself for the past three days. We crawled inside and found that Jared was doing fine: the headaches had been bad, but they were getting better now and he was glad to finally have some company.
Our cook and porters didn’t arrive for a few more days, but the weather cleared up beautifully and our meadow lay directly beneath the 10,000 foot north face we’d come to climb. The wall was still covered in snow and Jared informed us that it looked nothing like the last time he’d been there. We’d have to wait for the face to shed some of its snow, which didn’t seem too likely considering the days were only becoming colder and shorter. Mother nature was already stacking the cards against us.
When our porters finally showed up we spent a day organizing basecamp, then headed across the Jannu glacier to begin fixing ropes on the initial 3,000 foot rock buttress. Just getting to the base of the north face headwall would involve what most would consider a full blown climb in its own right. Starting at 15,000 feet we’d have to tackle an El Cap sized rock wall with sections up to 5.9 in difficulty. Kevin wasn’t feeling well that first day, so Jared and I headed over with packs full of polypro static line and a light climbing rack. It was cold and snowed most of the day, but Jared and I managed to climb and fix ropes up half the buttress. It was a big day and we straggled back into camp by headlamp totally exhausted. Two days later, the three of us headed back up with more rope, and bivi gear. We fixed the rest of the buttress and dug out a safe Camp One just below 18,000 feet. It was our first night up high, and the three of us decided to cram into an Assault Tent, which is definitely not designed for three people. We had all pounded a lot of water before bed, to help stave off dehydration and hence altitude sickness, so the night was basically an endless procession of people climbing out the door to releive themselves. Nobody slept very much.
Now that we were directly below the north face, it was hard to ignore how dangerous the conditions were. In front of us stood an 8000 foot snow covered rock wall, draped with a half dozen huge seracs that were taking turns cutting loose into the basin. We dicided that our only possible chance for success would be to attempt the northwest ridge, which defines the right side of the face. The ridge itself was reminiscent of an Alaskan Moonflower Buttress-like mixed route: a rocky prow interlaced with ice runnels, with minimal objective hazard. But to get to the start of the ridge, we’d first have to tackle a steep 3,000 foot snow gully gaurded by a huge cornice and tottering, car sized gargoyles of snow. On the other side of the valley, we had a perfect view of 20,000-foot Mera Peak, which appeared to offer a non-technical and safe route to its summit. We decided to descend to basecamp and make an attempt on Mera for acclimitization before doing anything more on Jannu.
For Mera we took only one 6mm rope, an ice axe and crampons each, sleeping bags, but no tent or bivi sacks. The climbing wasn’t really climbing at all so much as it was endless slogging through talus and rubble covered glacier and moraine. We bivied the first night in the open around 17,000 feet, but in the middle of the night it started snowing…hard. By 1am my bag was covered in an inch of snow and I realized that it was only a matter of time before the mositure would leak inside. Forcing myself into action, I crawled out of my soggy bag, shoved everything into my pack, hiked 50 yards and crawled into a cave I’d spotted earlier in the day. Why I hadn’t just bivied here in the first place I couldn’t tell you.
The next day involved more endless toiling, but as we gained elevation the view began to open up dramatically and soon we had a clear unobstructed view across the valley to Kanchenjunga, the world’s third highest mountain. Now you began to hear the occassional hooting and hollering as someone would stop to catch his breath and suddenly be blown away by the magnificence of our surroundings. In every direction we were surrounded by an endless array of jagged himalayan peaks dressed in jackets of flowing blue ice. We were all infused with new found energy which helped us ascend a loose rock gulley to 18,000 feet. Sick of humping the packs, we decided to make our final bivi near a snow patch at the top of the gully. In the morning, hopefully, we’d leave the gear behind and solo to the summit.
It was a cold night, but the morning dawned perfectly clear, and with our eastern exposure we were soon kicking back in the sun, brewing our mandatory pot of Peet’s coffee. An hour later, we set off up a talus slope leading to a sharp ridge of snow and ice. At the ridge we strapped on our crampons and began kicking into perfect neve. The conditions could not have better, and the three of us quickly soloed up to 19,200 feet. The summit was within our grasp, but suddenly, within the space of three feet, the snow turned from perfect styrofoam to sugar snow with a crust on top. It was a shock to see it turn bad so quick, but it was obvious that no one wanted to spend any time on this avalanche prone slope. We shot some video, snapped a few pics, and bailed all the way back down to basecamp.
A decision had to be made. Although we knew full well that conditions were less than ideal, we had invested far too much into this trip to bail without at least giving Jannu one good attempt. We headed up the buttress with enough food, fuel and climbing gear to spend three days at Camp One. It was time to cross the plateau and come to terms with the north face. Ascending our 3,000 feet of fixed lines to top of the buttress with heavy packs was a day I’d like to forget. Pack straps dug into my shoulders, my legs ached, and the ropes just went on and on. No one was looking forward to more days like this, but if we were really going to do this, a lot more food, fuel and equipment would have to be moved up. At home, it’s easy to romanticize alpine climbing: you picture yourself on some killer ledge sipping hot chocolate and watching the sunset. In reality, alpine climbing is nothing but endless slogging and brute manual labor. Once in a while you do get the hot chocoalte, but you’re usually so frazzled that you can hardly enjoy it.
On October 5th Jared and I set off across the plateau while Kevin dropped down to retrieve another load of gear. Jared and I strained under heavy packs and soon found ourselves wallowing up to our knees, then thighs in heavy snow. In these conditions, it took every once of energy we had just to move ten feet, and we had to cover about a mile to get to the base of the gully that would lead us to the ridge. It was a beautiful position, with the north face looming over our heads, but there was no way you could ignore the avalanche debris all around us and the half dozen searcs that perched over our heads, threatening to cut loose at any minute. I found myself constantly thinking, ‘I hope none of this stuff decideds to cut loose right now.’
At the base of the gully, Jared and I headed up onto a huge snow cone created from the avalanches which periodically pour down our gully. Normally the snow cone is more stable, but the conditions got even worse and we soon found ourselves in up to our chests. In some spots it was literally impossible to move. While I was wallowing around in one of these holes, cursing life in general, I looked ahead and saw that Jared was actaully walking along the surface. There must be a crust, I thought, thinking how lucky he was to be out of the mire, when suddenly the entire slope settled beneath us with a loud “whoomph.” We looked at each other and realized the slope could cut at any moment. We quickly retraced our tracks and moved out into the basin away from the gully and sat down on our packs. Jared pointed out that tomorrow would be the anniversary of Alex’s death. This seemed to put things in perspective and we realized that it just wasn’t worth it. There would be other mountains to climb in the future, but this one was just not meant to be. We headed back to the buttress camp and told Kevin what we thought, and he agreed entirely.
However, we weren’t rady to completely throw in the towel on this expedition. “What about heading over to the south side of the peak for an alpine style ascent of the south east ridge?” someone suggested. The conditions might well be better on the sunnier side of the peak, the ridge would objectively be a lot safer, and we knew that it had been climbed in as little as five days. We asked our guide/cook if it would be OK to make the move, on account of our permit being for the north face, and he said, “No problem.” So, on his recommendation,we packed up basecamp and hiked down to the village of Ghunsa, from where we could traverse around to the other side of the peak. However, at the check post we found out that the police wanted to be very strict about our permit. If we wanted to change routes, it would cost us another $4000. This was clearly ridiculous and out of the question.
What else could we do? Head back to basecamp perhaps, and try to climb a 6,000 meter peak in this area? The police, now knowing that we didn’t want to climb the north face, told us they would send one of their officers with us wherever we went. If they caught us trying to climb anything for which we didn’t have a permit, our guide would be thrown in jail and we’d be heavily fined. In other words, the expedition was over. Our guide Dawa had done a great job, but he had been totally wrong in suggesting we head down to Ghunsa. If we had just stayed in basecamp, we probably could have climbed a challenging peak.
So, I think we all learned a lot from this expedition. Primarily, when you seek out a true last great problem in the Himalayas, you’d better be prepared to walk away empty handed. It’s too easy to get in over your head on a project of this scale. There isn’t much out there that is harder or more committing than the north face of Jannu. I also learned that you can’t fool the local police and they are not the kind of people who will let you bend the rules, regardless of how unfair that may seem. I know there are probably some climbers who would have pushed on, and headed up into that gully. I don’t want to be that kind of climber. As the old saying goes, there are three objectives of every expedition: come back alive, come back as friends, and make the summit; in that order. We succeeded in two out of three, so in the final analysis, I’d call it a successful expedition.