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Nanda Devi East
Martin has just returned from an attempt on the massive unclimbed North-East Ridge of 7434m Nanda Devi East in the Indian Himalaya. Check out his account below:
“Nanda Devi East is probably the most difficult peak in the Indian Himalaya. There was only one existing route to the summit, the South-East Ridge, climbed by a Polish team in 1939, worth TD on the Alpine grading scale and by far the hardest pre-war climb in the Himalaya. This route has only had a dozen ascents in 75 years, all but one of them by siege tactics.
Our North-East Ridge is 2000 metres in vertical height and climbs through some magnificent snow and ice terrain. No-body had ever stepped on it prior to our attempt. Injuries and family bereavements reduced our original team of five to just two, Welsh mountain guide Mark Thomas and me. The climb celebrated our 40th and 60th birthdays respectively. We were committed to a pure alpine-style climb. Mark wouldn’t even allow our base camp Sherpa to carry any of his kit or food to our starting camp at 5300m! Being older and wiser I was less particular on this point but we shared the dream of making this route in clean unsupported style.
We made a reconnoitring and acclimatisation climb up to 6100m on the route between 19th and 22nd September. The main feature of the lower section was a beautiful snow-ice arête 200 metres in vertical height with an angle in excess of 55°. We made a camp at 5850m in a rimaye immediately below and climbed the ridge in six calf-bursting pitches, each of 60 metres length. The arête was capped by a band of ice cliffs, but we found a way through on the right-hand side at Scottish grade IV standard.
This part of the route was getting a prolonged dose of sunshine each day. This was a blessing and a curse in equal measure. The daytime melt helped to consolidate any fresh snow, but the heat was intense and exhausting, making it imperative to climb as much as possible in the night or early hours of the day. Our one-piece Mountain Equipment suits were too warm and bulky for these conditions and we reverted to layered systems.
For our crucial attempt I took a Matrix Zip-T, Eclipse Jacket, Lightline Down Jacket and Citadel Belay Jacket. These four layers coped admirably with a huge range of temperatures and were light and compact to carry. We set off for the summit on 25th September, retracing our route up the arête to our high point, but this time with 18kg on our backs. Above the ice cliffs the ridge broke into a complex zone of ice walls and labyrinthine crevasse fields. On the 26th we weaved a line through this terrain to a third camp at 6400m. The route-finding was fascinating. At every turn we thought we might be stopped by an impassable crevasse or sérac but somehow found a slender passage to the next obstacle.
We were hampered by heavy afternoon snowfall and could climb for little more than six hours each day before the fog rolled in. On the 28th we struggled up slopes of deep powder to make camp at 6640m under a big ice cliff. Now just 800 metres from the top, we had to cut loose and go lightweight for the summit. The deep snow was presenting considerable avalanche risk. There was a direct route to the final slopes but this climbed directly under ice cliffs for some way and was loaded with fresh snow. We had no choice but to follow the crest of ridge, a rodeo ride of a kilometre at close on 7000m altitude. On the 29th we left our tent, packed a snow shovel, Ion bivi bags and sleeping bag plus sufficient fuel for a couple of bivouacs, and waded up unstable snow to reach the crest of the upper ridge at 6750m.
The peaks of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary were revealed on reaching the crest. Changabang and Kalanka were directly opposite and the twin peaks of Nanda Devi were an awesome sight. We felt privileged to be the first people ever to witness this amazing view. As we began the laborious task of clearing snow from the ridge we began to believe. We were in good shape and at last the weather looked settled.
A hundred metres higher the ridge suddenly narrowed into a knife-edge. We perched on top of a huge snow meringue that overhung the south face and pondered a long section of fluted powder snow with no visible adherence to any solid ice. The south face overhung throughout, the north side plunged down the mountain’s formidable north wall at an angle in excess of 65°. The odds of safely climbing this were exceeded only by those of ever getting back down!
The decision was easy to make but hard to swallow. We returned to our camp, briefly pondered the safety of a direct route to cut past the fluted ridge and opted to retreat. Our high point was at 6865 metres. Through the night of 30th September to 1st October we descended the 1300 metres to the base of the ridge with 14 abseils from ice threads and much down-climbing, and returned to base camp on 1st October.
The climb had provided an unforgettable adventure in mountain scenery of the highest order. Even though we ultimately failed, our mission proved that there are many superb unclimbed routes still to be attempted in the Himalaya in alpine-style. The dread curse of siege-style commercial expeditions dominates public and media attention these days. We tend not to realise just how much there is out here for the purist, the bold pioneer and the mountain-lover. The age of exploration is not yet dead. I would like to express my great thanks to Mountain Equipment for helping to make our venture possible and for providing kit in which I could completely trust.”
Top recommendations: Matrix and Eclipse undergarments are a notch above anything previously produced in warmth and comfort; the Citadel Jacket performs as well in the highest Himalaya as it does on a Scottish winter climb; Arclight Pants are not just a ski-tourer’s item, they are the most durable and protective over-pants I have ever worn for winter, alpine and Himalayan mountaineering; the Ion Bivi is the perfect solution to providing protection and warmth over a sleeping bag at minimal weight.