24 hours of an expedition in the Garwhal Himalaya to attempt an unclimbed 6,805m peak
Written by Guy Buckingham // Photography by Hamish Frost & Guy Buckingham / Coldhouse
20.00hrs: Altitude 6300m. We’d had a hard day climbing. The altitude drew on us, making breathing a struggle and our movements lethargic. Our bodies were slow to come to terms with the sheer physical effort and the precious few calories. Until that afternoon, we’d been exceptionally lucky with the weather, but at 16.00, all that changed. The clouds bubbled up around us and static built in the air. Our hairs stood on end and we all knew an electrical storm was imminent. I’ve been through several and it never gets any easier. The last occasion had been on Mont Blanc, on a rock face, with lightning charring the rock around us. It’s so random, and there’s nothing to do but wait and hope. We knew we had to find somewhere to camp, but there had been no flat platforms anywhere – we only needed one the size of a single bed, but there wasn’t even that. We had come to a knife-edge ridge after seemingly endless gullies of snow and ice. On the one hand, the ridge meant less effort to keep moving; on the other, it meant walking a fine line, a single footprint wide, between vertical drops on either side – at least a mile down.
For the first time on the climb, we dithered. Should we stay and try to dig some kind of platform, or should we continue? We dug, bleeding precious energy to make any headway in the rock-hard snow, but it would have meant camping in an exposed spot at the mercy of the storm. We stopped digging, knowing that to stay was foolish. Despite the effort, despite our enervated bodies craving rest, we had to go on. Visibility was poor, but we had to keep going. It was an hour before we found a spot; it wasn’t great, an uncomfortable night on top of a small buttress, but it would do. But as Malcolm and Paul joined me, and the storm miraculously cleared, visibility improved to reveal a huge wind scoop in which could camp, just a short abseil down the rock buttress. We couldn’t believe our luck. For the first time in three days we removed our helmets and harnesses. Before, everything had been a chore; every movement required extreme care, even retrieving something from a rucksack. Anything that slipped out of your grasp would slide and bounce a mile to the glacier below, never to be seen again. We went wild, enjoying the freedom to move unhindered. Then we settled down, put up the tent, and started cooking.
The weather hadn’t improved much. Visibility went in and out, but I was lucky enough to get a photo of the route heading towards the top. We couldn’t see much of the summit ridge and had no idea how long or difficult that ridge might be, but we had spotted a possible route through a jumble of rock buttresses and icy gullies that might get us onto it. We had spent 15 years getting to this point. Back then, Paul and Malcolm first attempted this mountain, learning lessons as the weather robbed them of success. In 2014, Malcolm returned with another climber, Simon Yearsley. They had been going well and got to a position close to where we were now camping. They then took what appeared to be the best line towards the top, ending up on some really difficult climbing that slowed them down. They had to retreat when the weather closed in. We all had a lot vested in this ascent, and what waited ahead of us was unknown ground. Relieved to find a good campsite, we felt our spirits buoyed by a hot drink and some idea of tomorrow’s route. We were extremely tired but still had enough left to make this work. Amazing how your perspective changes if you can stop for a hot drink and something to eat.
05.00hrs: The alarm blared too loudly and I was unsure where I was. In a tent, I thought, maybe in the Welsh hills. I heard the patter of rain – well, that’s not unusual. But I slowly woke up and remembered where I was. Rain at 6,300m? No, that’s unheard of. We had over 30 Greater Ranges expeditions between us and none of us had ever experienced rain this high up. But we had already seen the substantial changes in the glacier on the way up – we had photos from 15 years ago to compare – and here was yet more confirmation. If it rained and we got wet, and if the wind picked up, we would really suffer. Mild frostbite (who relishes losing bits of their fingers and toes?) or, worse, hypothermia, which, at that altitude, would be the end.
There was nothing we could do; we’d give it an hour, all of us dozing fitfully. We’d had a half-decent night’s sleep, amazing as there were three of us trying to get comfortable on the equivalent of a single bed. But now, we grew irritated. We occupied our own internal worlds, weighing up options, wondering what we could do. Could we stay a full day and wait for tomorrow? The tent and everything inside were already wet from condensation; if we stayed a full day, it would get worse. Additionally, to cut weight we had reduced the food we carried and only had one small meal each to see us through until we were off the mountain. A summit bid with no food would slow us down and we would feel the cold more; we were already pushing our limits and that might have been one too many.
06.00hrs: No change. The rain still fell, tapping a gentle percussion on our tent walls. Malcolm looked out but saw little apart from darkness and mist. How long would this last? Soon it would be serious, no longer about our summit bid, instead threatening our safe return. We lay there, barely speaking.
07.00hrs: ‘Right, that’s it.’ Malcolm got up and opened the tent, putting on the stove to make a hot drink. We all sat up then, and began talking through the options; even as we got our hands around warm cups, we felt better. The rain wasn’t that bad, we said. We go mountaineering in Scotland in winter – we can handle this. We formed a plan. We put on layers, boots, apologising as we did in the cramped space. But this time, things were easier – there was no breakfast to worry about, and we didn’t have to pack up the tent. We were stiff and tired, but resolved. We were ready. It felt like the weather had eased, but visibility was still poor. At least we wouldn’t be constantly reminded at every step just how vast and yawning the drop below us was. We knew roughly which way we wanted to go, so we got started. To make things quicker, we went unroped.
08.30hrs: Altitude, 6,450m. Visibility was still almost non-existent. We had moved up the snow slope, but it was getting steeper. We stopped to get the rope out and began moving singly, trying to match the limited view with what we could make out on my sole camera image. I was the only one who could do this properly, so I felt responsible for our route selection. I wasn’t at all sure; I knew this was make or break. Get the route wrong, and that was our summit bid blown. I started off, wanting to move fast to get somewhere I could definitely match with the photograph. Reality – meaning altitude and our oxygen-poor environment – kicked in. I moved five steps up the steep ice slope and, starved of oxygen, I stopped, almost bent double, calves screaming, lungs heaving, fighting to breathe. I waited, then moved off more slowly, one slow step at a time, moving just fast enough to keep enough oxygen in my system and to keep my muscles working.
10.00hrs: Altitude, 6,550m. We continued to make upward progress; it was looking OK. Visibility slowly improved as the rain stopped falling. All that remained was the occasional flurry of sleet. If this was the right way, it still felt good. We worked well together, we had experience and were capable. We could climb hard, overcome obstacles; we had a chance, we just needed to keep moving upward.
12.00hrs: Altitude, 6,600m. Finally, visibility increased enough that we could see the ridge up ahead, and a line of snow and ice that would take us up there. This piece of the puzzle now in the bag, we were jubilant. Despite a few harder moves, the route continued at a reasonable technical level. There was still a long way to go. How far we couldn’t say, but our rhythm was good.
13.00hrs: Altitude, 6,650m. We still hadn’t made the summit ridge. We were still going up, but would we be fast enough? The summit remained an unknown. Everything looked much closer at this height; it was all too easy to be fooled. Distance perception skewed by summit fever. We set a turnaround time: 16.00. This made sense. We were getting more and more tired, close to exhausted, and decision-making was not at its best. We needed a safety margin.
14.00hrs: Altitude, 6,700m. Finally, we were on the summit ridge. This was it; as long as we kept our heads, it was possible. We had no idea how long or hard the ridge would be. We found ourselves on another knife-edge, huge drops to either side. On one side of the ridge was a cornice, almost certainly unstable enough that we could fall through at any time. We needed to stay close to the edge, but not close enough to be on the cornice. I led us steadily onwards. Suddenly the rope went tight behind me. I crouched quickly and got into as safe a position as I could. I turned to see Malcolm struggling, partially hidden. He had fallen through the cornice. Fear ran through me. I watched him scrape desperately back to safety, wondering if he had seen his feet dangling over a two-mile drop to the valley floor. No time to consider that kind of thing – we could do that later. We had to keep moving.
15.00hrs: Altitude, 6,750m. False summits are the curse of Himalayan climbing. Every time the summit seemed close enough to touch, the ridge opened up to yet more laborious ascent. Visibility, by this point, had improved enough for us to fully appreciate every last one, and witness the work still to come. Eventually, we picked out the genuine summit, mercifully not far off, and a ridge that dropped away on the other side. We regrouped, agreeing that Malcolm should lead this final section. It was his third attempt, and he had put so much into this – it seemed fitting.
16.00hrs: Altitude, 6,805m. Elation. There’s no other word for it. So often, we have been quite casual about reaching a summit – where the job is still only half-done – but this time was different. We had all put so much into this, emotion flooded us. The weather cleared, as if rewarding us with a glimpse of the breathtaking tapestry of peaks surrounding us, leading to the long foothills and the vast Indian Plain beyond. Images on a page or screen cannot ever truly convey the magic of a moment like that one, a memory precious and private. We gave some thought and a word of thanks to the people who had helped us get there: our loved ones, friends, porters. Then, it was our moment, cherished forever, shared between the three of us.
Then came the descent. We’d been climbing long enough to know that this was where the accidents happened. We went carefully, checking, double-checking every move. As elation faded, hunger and exhaustion fell over us. We dug deep; we just needed to keep it together long enough to get back to the tent. Every step was focused and precise. We joined the ridge, getting back into rhythm, but this time not on autopilot. Too easy for something to go wrong that way, so we all checked each other knowing we had to get this right.
20.00hrs: Altitude, 6,300m. When the tent finally appears, we allow ourselves the luxury of relaxing on those final few steps. Surprising how much psychological comfort a thin sheet of fabric offers. It feels unreal and we even question if it really happened. There is more descent to come, sure, and on tricky ground, but that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, we rest. Savour the last 24 hours. I think about our friendships and emotional bonds, and the adventure we are sharing. This is unique and special, made all the more so by the people beside me.
On June 6th 2018, Malcolm Bass, Paul Figg and Guy Buckingham made the first ascent of Janhukot (6,805m) in the Garhwal Himalaya and returned safely. They would like to thank their sponsors and supporters, without whom such trips would not be possible:
PERTEX // Rab // The Mount Everest Foundation // The Montane Alpine Club Climbing Fund // The Thomlinson Trust // Montane // La Sportiva // Petzl // Coldhouse