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Annapurna attempt: the northwest face

MEC Ambassador Louis Rousseau shares the story of an expedition in April and May 2017 with climbing partners Adam Bielecki (Poland), Rick Allen (Scotland) and Felix Berg (Germany). Written by Rick and Louis, with collaboration from Adam and Felix.

Video: Annapurna One

The story behind our attempt

Everything started in spring 2017. We’d planned to open a new route in alpine style (no fixed ropes, no supplemental oxygen, self-supported) on the north face of Cho Oyu in the Himalayan mountain range – the sixth-highest summit in the world.

The north face of Cho Oyu. Photo: Anton Skarja

Among the eight-thousanders (mountains above 8000m), Cho Oyu is generally considered the easiest to climb – if you go the normal route. But scaling the north or south face is a different story. The north face is steeper than Everest’s north face (45°) and about even with K2’s or Dhaulagiri’s north faces (+50°). In 1988, a Slovenian team climbed the north face of Cho Oyu for the first time.

Since then, there have been only two other successes on the north side. With some research and help from members of the 1988 expedition, Louis put together a plan to establish a new line on the north face in the middle of the 4km-wide wall that’s about 2000m high, and invited Adam, Rick and Felix to join him.

Left to right: Adam, Felix and Rick. Photo: Louis Rousseau

Rough start for the dream team

Before we started the expedition, a perfect storm of professional, personal and bureaucratic obligations put an end to our Cho Oyu plans. Our original expedition plan to the far end of the world ended before it even kicked off, but we wouldn’t let this setback stop us.

Since we were already in Katmandu, we sat in the hotel garden with a laptop and looked for a new line that would inspire us. What about Annapurna? According to the accident stats, it’s the most dangerous 8000m peak. But what about the northwestern flank? It was steep with mixed ice, snow and rock, but relatively safe.

So we made a new plan: the great Annapurna, 8000m, climbed for the first time in 1950. It inspired generations of climbers. We were on our way, smiling and highly motivated as the Cho Oyu dream slowly faded away.

Nepali Stupa with Tilicho Peak in the background. Photo: Louis Rousseau

Annapurna was our new goal, but we needed another mountain to acclimatize if we wanted to summit in true alpine style. We scanned the map to find a 7000m peak close to our main objective, something with a gentler slope where we could get in time with our ice axes and crampons, and also multiply our precious red blood cells to prepare for altitude. Tilicho Peak, at 7134m, had a ridge at 6200m followed by a long safe climb to the summit. This was going to be our prep for Annupurna.

Getting to know Tilicho

We were relieved to leave Katmandu for the mountains with our new plan. It took 10 hours on a bumpy bus ride to reach Besishahar. At that time of the year, the road is passable by jeep past Manang (but it made the bumps from the day before pale in insignificance).

Meeting some locals in Nepal. Photo: Louis Rousseau

On April 18, we trekked to Tilicho Lake (the locals call it the highest lake in the world), which was completely ice covered. From there, we had a great view of Tilicho Peak, and admitted it was quite impressive, dominating the skyline northwest.

The next day, we left the comfort of the lodge and set out to reach the far end of the lake to establish our true basecamp for the next 10 to 12 days. But we’d underestimated how hard it was to trek in Nepal: it took a lot of effort to cross the 5340m Tilicho Pass in worsening weather with our heavy packs. After an 8-hour hike, we reached a fine spot close to the foot of our objective. We had huge respect for our porters who’d crossed the pass with heavier loads.

Tilicho Peak basecamp. Photo: Louis Rousseau

We spent April 20 resting and organizing basecamp, and the next day, we finally headed out to climb. The steep scree and snow slopes led to the first broken, rocky pillar, which we climbed quickly without touching the old, faded and unreliable fixed rope (indicating that this line had been followed by previous teams). We reached the ridge that was our goal for the day, and then set about finding a spot to establish camp. Climbing down about 80m on the other side of the ridge, we found a comfortable and safe site on top of a line of seracs (ice cliffs).

Going up to Camp II with Tilicho Lake down below. Photo: Felix Berg

Climbing the second rock pillar. Photo: Louis Rousseau

When we reached the windy crest, we quickly realized this was an inhospitable place to set up our second camp. Luckily, Adam found a canyon created by an old crevasse in the seracs. It seemed we couldn’t have asked for a better end to a good day, but at night, the wind shifted and our crevasse became a wind tunnel. We battled incoming snow in our prototype high-altitude tents, and our bodies suffered from the first night at 6150m. After sleepless hours and having accomplished our goal of acclimatization, we decided to descend.

Climbing down such steep terrain isn’t easy, and the safest option was a series of long rappels. We made good use of the pitons abandoned by previous expeditions that Louis had thoughtfully collected during the climb. Adam navigated the complex terrain and efficiently set up fresh anchors and we progressed quickly. We reached basecamp safe but tired, just in time for a late lunch. Sleep came easily. The next few days, we spent time in our newly installed mess tent that doubled as a perfect place to play chess.

Preparing a rappel station for the descent. Photo: Felix Berg

Rappelling through the second rocky pillar. Photo: Louis Rousseau

too optimistic

On April 27, we headed out again up Tilicho Peak to continue our acclimatization. About 9 hours later, we reached our wind-tunnel crevasse; most of us had a bad night and we postponed pushing further until the next day. We woke up at 2am, but the wind was even stronger and wasn’t relenting. Finally, at 6am, we reluctantly decided to begin the descent to basecamp, and were happy to reach it a few hours later.

Camp II in the crevasse. Photo: Felix Berg

For the next few days, heavy snow fell repeatedly and left about a metre of snow on the ground at basecamp. We spent the time resting and digging out our tents. At this point, we had to admit that our plan for a quick acclimatization on Tilicho Peak was proving to be too optimistic. Louis also had less time to complete the expedition than the rest of the team, and on May 3, he had to make the difficult decision to return home to Canada.

The team continues on

After Louis left, the weather allowed the remaining team members to head straight on upwards, moving together over soft, deep snow patches and hard neve, over crevasses, through rock bands and around seracs to reach the summit of Tilicho. Satisfied with this fine, 7134m peak, the three of us – Adam, Rick and Felix – snapped some photos and saw our next destination: the northwest face of Annapurna.

The last section before the summit of Tilicho Peak (7134 m). Photo: Felix Berg

The vertigo-inducing northwest face of Annapurna. Photo: Felix Berg

We were sharing the open slopes above the north Annapurna glacier with small Italian, Spanish and Chilean teams who were all on the mountain, pushing for the summit via the 1950 French route. This period of low wind enabled the established teams to complete their ascents while the new arrivals could only look at the longer term forecast of strong summit winds (90kph) in frustration. When the successful pairs descended, their tales of avalanche risk and serac collapse confirmed the dangers associated with the classic route, and re-affirmed our team’s choice of Tilicho Peak for acclimatization.

The Annapurna line that we’d chosen beckoned: it was extremely challenging yet feasible. Acclimatized and ready to go, we hoped that mother nature would be kind to us and that the violent winds would die down before monsoon season began.

Sorting gear. Photo: Felix Berg

3 days, 2 sleepless nights

The team was waiting for a 3-day weather-window of low wind at 8000m, combined with little to no precipitation, to tackle the climb. As time passed, we realized this wasn’t going to happen. So we lowered our expectations and took advantage of a single day of low wind followed by a day of high snowfall. We set out on May 17 for a pure alpine-style attempt on the northwest face of Annapurna.

Our chosen route took us to the edge of the glacial lakes at the foot of the north Annapurna glacier (200m below our base camp at 4100m). From there, we slowly climbed over boulder-strewn terrain toward the moraines below our face. The glacier was extremely fractured and we toiled over alternating rocky ridges and abruptly icy slopes separating deep fissures of crevasses before we reached a snowy glacier in late afternoon. We pitched our tent on a flat spot at about 5000m and enjoyed the last few rays of the evening sun.

Approaching Annapurna's northwest face. Photo: Felix Berg

Rick and Adam installing Camp 1. Photo: Felix Berg

The next morning, after an hour’s walk, we arrived at the base of a huge triangular buttress and an icy couloir that ran up its right side. We crossed the bergschrund (major crevasse) which separated from the glacier face and began to climb.

The couloir started as a snow slope, but increasingly hard icy streaks predominated at an average of 55°. It was long – longer than we’d estimated – and afternoon snow showers didn’t help the situation.

There was no break in the angle to provide any relief for a bivouac site, so we cut a ledge in the ice at the foot of a rock wall where we could secure the rope. Torrents of spindrift poured intermittently down the wall. We were alert to the possibility that a full avalanche may develop.

The beginning of the route. Photo: Felix Berg

At sunset, the snow relented and we had a glimpse of the sun and eastern flanks of Dhaulagiri. Finally, we had enough of a ledge for half a tent and we sat in a row, belayed inside our tent fabric with a single pole keeping it off our faces and our legs hanging free. We cooked a simple meal, brewed many hot drinks and lapsed into fitful rest. Through a tiny vent, we watched a clear, starlit night over the central Nepal Himalayas.

Getting moving in the morning was slow. We melted more snow for hot drinks, carefully unwound the safety lines that attached everything to the wall, and packed up. The icy slope angled right from the top of the couloir and we roped up; one climber led and placed ice screws as the other two followed simultaneously.

A mostly sleepless night, the efforts of the 2 previous days, and the brittle, thin ice over the rock made progress slower than before. Snow started falling again and at the end of the day we were in a place where there was nowhere to set up our tent.

A slew of rock, snow and ice. Photo: Felix Berg

Descending spindrift clouds added urgency to our search for a place to bivouac. An hour before dark, we tried to make something of a rock ledge at 6500m. It sloped alarmingly and gathered so much snow that we ended up hanging in our harnesses from our belay points, shrouded in tent fabric. There was no way to take off our boots to slip on dry socks or change into warmer clothes.

It took a lot of effort, but Felix did manage to melt some snow so everyone could have a little bit to drink. The previous night’s bivouac seemed like luxury compared to this one. We spent most of the night shivering and constantly disturbed each other as we shifted positions to mix up the pressure points from our harnesses.

When one careless movement created a rip in the tent (not designed to be hung like this) we suddenly had a new view of the world… through the hole in floor to the glacier far below. If that wasn’t enough, we lost a sleeping mat to the abyss overnight, and in the morning a sleeping bag slipped through the cellar door and disappeared as well.

The second bivouac: no place to lie down. Photo: Felix Berg

In the morning, we seriously evaluated the situation and considered whether we should go on or turn back. On the one hand, we’d climbed half of the northwest face, had confidence we could handle technical difficulties, and had ample food and gas. On the other hand, the incessant afternoon snowfall was alarming, our progress had slowed and after 2 sleepless nights, we weren’t going to get any faster.

From here onwards, retreat would become much more serious and breaking through to the summit ridge would require full commitment. When you added on the loss of one member’s sleeping bag, it all tilted the decision firmly in favour of descent.

In the centre of the wall: slowly but surely. Photo: Felix Berg

Nine hours, 20 rappels on Abalakov ice belays and several pitches of down-climbing later, we were back on the glacier, relieved and glad to pitch our wounded tent on flat snow. We cooked up our first meal in 2 days, and listened to the sound of powder snow avalanches pouring down the face, which confirmed our decision to descend. Another full day took us back down the glacier and its moraines to the welcoming tents of basecamp.

As we toiled back up from the glacial lakes, evening sleet continued to fall and it became clear that the weather window we’d needed to climb the northwest face of Annapurna never materialized.

The decision-making on this kind of enterprise is crucial and most of us would say we would only contemplate seeking a route with someone we have climbed with extensively. Adam, Felix, Rick and Louis had never climbed together before but would gladly do so again. That is one measure of success.

Essentials Louis used on this expedition:

Louis Rousseau's gear for Annapurna attempt

Top photo: Last vertical section before Tilicho Peak. Photo: Felix Berg

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Louis Rousseau
Louis Rousseau

MEC Ambassador well-known for pushing alpine climbing limits in Canada and across the world. Frequently spends his leisure time around 8000m.