By Andy Houseman
What do you need for a good trip? A partner, a mountain, and a bit of luck?
The first was easy. My climbing partnership with Nick Bullock had been forged over the last few years, strengthened through friendship, mutual respect, and trust in each other in the mountains. We shared a flat in Chamonix in the winter of 2006-’07, me the keen and inexperienced youth, Nick the wise old man. Conditions were favorable that winter and our route tally kept growing, the only problem being that neither of us had much enthusiasm for leaving a bivy early.
The second factor, the mountain, we owe to Lindsay Griffin and his contribution to the Alpinist article “Unclimbed” (Alpinist 4). One of Lindsay’s picks was the stunning 1,800-meter north face of Chang Himal (6,802m, also known as Ramtang Chang or Wedge Peak). Situated in the remote northeast corner of Nepal, this is one of many impressive mountains that form the Kangchenjunga Himal. We’d thought about going there in the autumn of 2008, but my attempt at a full-time job back in the U.K. limited my time away. After a two-day jeep ride and 10-day trek to reach base camp, we would barely have had time to acclimatize, let alone attempt that face on Chang Himal.
Luck, well that’s a tricky one. We didn’t have it that autumn, when, without time to get to Chang Himal, we opted for the quickly accessed Hinku Valley. While resting at a teahouse down the valley from our base camp, everything there was robbed, apart from the garbage bag, before we’d even tied into a rope.
One year later, though, karma seemed to be on our side. With no daily forecast being sent to us at base camp below Chang Himal, we had no way of knowing the good weather we experienced upon arriving would hold, but day after day it did. And we were lucky with conditions, too. In 2007 a Slovenian attempt (the only proper attempt on the face prior to ours) had failed at less than half height due to bad snow. We didn’t have bomber, squeaky névé up the entire face, but we weren’t complaining.
We also had a fourth lucky charm: Buddy, our cook. Without a doubt, he made the trip. Day after day he produced pizza and chips, lasagne, fresh bread, apple pies, burgers—you name it and he’d cook it.
We arrived at base camp, situated at 5,050 meters, above the Kangchenjunga Glacier, in mid-October. The 10-day trek with three friends had been mellow and sociable; we could almost forget what we were there for. After our good-byes at base camp, the trip suddenly took on a serious note, a kick up the backside, so to speak. The daunting north face of Chang Himal was just a couple of miles away over the jumbled chaos of the glacier. “Umm…bitten off more than you can chew here,” I thought. From the time we woke to the end of each day of acclimatizing on the 6,000-meter mounds of scree behind base camp, Chang Himal was omnipresent—there was no escaping it.
For 10 days, we watched the face and our bodies slowly adapted to the altitude, Buddy producing tasty food day after day. With a route cairned across the glacier, the rack and food debate finished, and our kit stashed below the face, only an hour and half away, we were out of excuses. We spent a couple of days just eating, resting, and watching for any telltale signs of a change in the weather. None came and so, after a leisurely lunch, we followed our cairned path across the glacier and settled down for the night in a small cave below the face.Sleep came surprisingly easy. After an early alarm and a quick breakfast, we entered the rocky gully that leads onto low-angled snow slopes at the bottom of the face at 2:30 a.m. Climbing onto the snow cone, we felt silent relief as we stood on a crust of firm snow instead of sinking to our waist in bottomless powder as we’d feared. We zigzagged up the slope, avoiding front-pointing till the last possible moment, saving our calves for what was to come. But instead of running up the firm snow, I moved as slowly as if I were wading through powder; I could barely keep pace with Nick as he kicked steps in front. I’d come out to Nepal not as fit as I’d have liked, but I’d felt better than this while acclimatizing. Bent over my axes, I threw up in the snow—“Not now!” I silently screamed. We’d both managed to keep well on the trip. What if I blew our only weather window?
Standing in the dark silence, I shouted up to Nick, dreading his reply. Without a moment’s hesitation or the slightest anger in his voice, he replied, “No worries, youth, we can go down and give it a few days.”
There it was: a chance to bail, to run away. Was this what I’d been looking for? Was it all psychological? This was the biggest face I’d been on, and of course I felt nervous—anyone who says he doesn’t is bullshitting. Nick’s laid-back response almost made it too easy. But the drive was still there. “I want to continue!” I shouted up. If Nick could kick the steps, I’d try to keep up.We slowly soloed up the steepening snow slope, moving as quickly as my weak body would allow through the “Narrows,” the most threatened part of the route. With the arrival of dawn we had started up the broad gully that eventually would lead us back left onto the spur proper. The odd steep step or a few moves on unconsolidated bottomless snow limited my daydreaming. The vomiting had stopped, but my body felt empty. Nick thought giardia. I wasn’t sure, but the excitement of the unknown climbing above had taken over, keeping me going.
Nearly halfway up the face we stopped just to the right of the spur, chopping a small ledge for a rest and refuel. Feeling wasted but no longer ill, I asked Nick if he’d mind taking the first technical pitch of the route while I tried to down as much food and liquid as possible. I was feeling stronger with each bite. Above, Nick battled with steep snow and rotten ice, interspersed with time-consuming searches for gear in the shattered and blocky granite. This would be the norm for the rest of the route.
Feeling I should at least kick a few steps, I took the lead for the first time and ran out the ropes another 150 meters over steep snow to reach the crest of the spur, just over 1,000 meters up the face. It was early, but we’d covered a lot of ground and we both were tired. We set about chopping a ledge, knowing that a bivy here would catch a welcome few minutes of warming sun at dawn.Sleep and more food helped revive me through the night, and after savoring the brief rays of morning sun I grabbed the rack for the first pitch. An obvious corner with a steep exit led straight up from the bivy.
“I’ll head up this, I think. Looks straightforward.”
Nick smiled knowingly, but all he said was, “Okay.”
Some minutes later, breathing hard, I looked a long way down at my last bit of decent gear as I searched for an axe placement at the top of the corner. Nick’s sly grin filled my memory. After finding a good cam, I swung left and felt the reassuring thunk of a pick in good névé. Legs bridged wide to take the weight of the pack off my arms, I pulled a few moves over the bulge and the cam disappeared far below as I reached easier ground and started the hunt for a belay.
Pulling over the steep step, Nick glanced up with an I-told-you-so look and said, “Umm, bet that was stimulating.” My payback was to hand Nick the rack for what turned out to be the crux pitch of the route: a long, steep corner with a capping overhanging of rotten ice. “Watch me, youth!” That was daunting: I’d never heard Nick shout that in the mountains before. But the rope slowly ran through my belay plate, the jerk of a fall thankfully never coming. Dismantling the meager belay, I started following as Nick moved up easier terrain, trying to find a belay. I pulled through the bulge on what usable thin ice was left, arms screaming and lungs bursting. An impressive lead.The next four pitches were less steep but just as slow going, as we tried to unearth protection and belays in the shattered rock. Leaving Nick’s belay and a possible bivy, I started a long traverse to the right under a huge roof that had been obvious from base camp, a feature that we hoped marked the end of the steepest section of the face. The ropes came tight, and while I waited a few minutes for Nick to start moving I got out my headlamp. Moving again, I passed the end of the roof but the beam from my headtorch showed no sign of a belay stance. I kept going toward a slight rib I could just make out in the gloom, hoping to find snow deep enough to carve a ledge for a bivy. But the rib proved useless, and after placing two screws into the bulletproof ice just a few inches below the snow, I slumped onto the anchor and brought Nick across.
Through the darkness we could just make out a snow arête above the roof we’d passed. Nick quickly led upward, hoping for a comfy ledge. But in the end we settled for a foot-wide stance just off to one side of the spur. A fitful night’s sleep was ensured, though hope that the hardest climbing was behind us made it slightly more bearable. We had climbed only 200 vertical meters that day.
Packing away one rope, we began the next morning moving together up a broad, right-trending snow ramp. Good névé and easy-to-find gear were a nice change, and soon we’d covered as much ground as we had the entire previous day. After traversing across a couple of flutings, only one unconsolidated, rotten snow arête remained to get ’round before we’d reach a deep gully that we knew would lead up to the easy-angled west ridge below the summit. Two attempts of levitating around the arête proved useless—a longer Peruvian apprenticeship needed for me.
Plan B was a short, rotten mixed step to reach one of the flutings directly above—more direct but, unlike the deep gully, with an unknown end. The rock step led into unconsolidated snow and a grovel over a few bulges before horrendous rope drag stopped me about 20 meters below the fluting’s vertical headwall. Nick quickly took us up to the top of the fluting, where we dug the biggest bivy ledge of the route. (But still not big enough for the single-wall tent we carried and never used.) Brewing up that evening, just 300 meters below the summit, we feared we might have climbed ourselves into a dead end, and the thought of rappelling back down and trying to find another way into the deep gully to our right wasn’t too appealing.
We woke to a very cold morning, and Nick went for an exploratory “poke your head around the corner” look to the left. He returned to the bivy ledge 10 minutes later with a grin that said it all. Another fluting appeared to lead straight to the west ridge. Stashing the bivy gear, Nick left the ledge again, moving quickly with no pack. Following, I removed a screw from the last bit of ice we would find on the route and reached Nick, belayed to his axes and a not-so-inspiring bollard. As I took over the lead, I forgot the joy of being close to the summit but instead started contemplating downclimbing this Peruvian-style fluting during our descent, as it appeared that any chance of finding ice for rappel anchors would be fruitless.
Moving together, the rope between us pointless but for some reason still there, we pulled onto the ridge and into the full force of the wind that had been blowing long plumes off the high summits of Kangchenjunga during the past two weeks. For the first time in four days we could see the summit, barely 150 meters away. I followed Nick’s boot pack up the 45° slope and quickly joined him on the knife-edge top.
What a feeling as we embraced and took in the full panorama: the gigantic north face of Kangchenjunga towering behind us, Jannu’s impressive north face poking up in the distance, base camp a tiny dot below. After only 30 minutes on the summit, the cold and our anxiety about the descent forced us to leave. Easy downclimbing brought us to the point where we’d exited onto the ridge. Hoping to avoid downclimbing the insecure snow flutings, we started digging as fast as the thin air allowed. After 20 minutes, though, we’d found only rotten snow. Accepting defeat, I started down after Nick, a few meters below me, plunging each tool as far as possible into the snow, holding my breath each time I weighted a foothold, expecting it to collapse. Finally we reached ice and quickly drilled a V-thread. A single 60-meter rap brought us back to the bivy ledge. It was late in the afternoon, and neither of us had the energy to chop another ledge lower down the face, so we spent a while enlarging the previous night’s ledge and settled in for one last night on the face.After 14 hours of rappelling the next day, we crashed out in the cave at the base of the face, our rack gone but at last the true feelings of success sinking in. It was almost like standing on the summit again—but this time there were no niggling thoughts of unknowns still to overcome, just pure satisfaction.
Area: Kangchenjunga Himal, Nepal
Ascent: Alpine-style first ascent of the central spur (1,800m, ED+ M6) on the north face of 6,802m Chang Himal (a.k.a. Wedge Peak or Ramtang Chang), October 29–November 2, 2009, by Nick Bullock and Andy Houseman. The two bivouacked at the base of the wall before and after the climb, for a total of six nights away from base camp.
A Note about the Author:
Born in 1981, Andy Houseman is from North Yorkshire, England, but lives in Chamonix, France, where he is training to become a UIAGM guide.