Kangchenjunga 2002 Expedition
Himalayan Expestions Report Spring 2002 by Daniel Mazur
Our spring season in the Himalaya comprised two expeditions: One to 7200 meter "Mount Nojin Kansa" in Tibet, and the other to "Mount Kangchenjunga", in Nepal, at 8500 meters the third highest mountain in the world.
I spend about 4 months a year in the Himalaya, and this year's spring climbing season was a very challenging one. In March, together with Jon Otto of Chengdu, China and Washington DC, our 9 member team made a first western ascent of the 7200 meter Tibetan peak: Nojin Kansa. We were from America, Briton, France, Greece, and Korea, making the first non-Chinese attempt of this peak located 100 kilometers south of Tibet's beautiful and historic capital city: Lhasa. The climbing research backing up this claim was done by Daniel Ferrer. Needless to say, being in such a remote area, we saw no other climbers in Tibet this season. We were a group of new and old friends, among them Jean-Christophe Van Waes from France, Richard Fullerton from London, Michael Doyle from Virginia, Daniel Mazur from Seattle, Brian Mertes from New York, Andrew Bruske from Seoul and Detroit, Dimitri Koutsogiorgas, and Antoni Sykaris from Athens, and Martha Johnson from Seattle, whom I had known since 1995.
My strongest Nojin Kansa memory was of March 20th, burned into my memory banks, when I will never forget spending a frightening night in an Ozark tent in the 6700 meter high camp with one of our members who was suffering in extreme pain from one of the worst cases of altitude sickness I had ever seen. The previous day we had made a challenging 1200 meter ascent up a semi-technical snow-ice and rock face. In the tent brewing tea, I was feeling ok, if a bit shaky from the big ascent (there had been no place to make an intermediate camp), but my friend, on the other hand, was getting slammed by altitude sickness. We spent a harrowing night in the wind buffeted tent, on the high 6700 meter plateau of Nojin Kansa, and my friend was crippled by a vice-grip headache and, due to a somersaulting stomach, was unable to keep anything down, and kept vomiting into a tiny zip lock bag that I was holding. At one point, as my friend lay there moaning and writhing in pain, I panicked and prayed to every god I could think of. Perhaps that worked, as eventually my friend began to improve a tiny bit. We took Diamox, drank water, and my friend tried some Dexamethasone tablets toward morning. Feeling shaky, and counting our lucky stars for making it through the night, my friend and I completed the many rappels down the snow ice and rock face, which brought us out of danger.
Richard Fullerton from London, and Michael Doyle from Virginia, in the company of Pemba, one of our very tough Tibetan high altitude climbers, headed for the summit. It was a beautiful sunny and windy morning, and Richard, not feeling well, turned around at the halfway mark, but Michael Doyle continue on with Pemba, reaching the summit around 4:00 pm on 21 March, and became the first non-Chinese person to reach the summit of Nojin Kansa. During the ascent, Michael sunburned his lips so badly that they turned into a mass of black scabs and 3 weeks later, still looked as if they might benefit from amputation. Nevertheless, for the next few weeks, Michael fairly danced the jig with joy, through a well-deserved sense of pride in his accomplishments.
Martha Johnson completed an interesting high-altitude medicine research study on the members, which involved taking multiple measurements of each team member using a portable EKG machine, which was hooked up through wires connected to the climber's chests with stick-on electrodes, which, when removed, tore out a fair amount of chest hair by the roots with quite a loud ripping noise and a modicum of pain.
When we finally left basecamp and made the grueling, bumpy, jarring, freezing cold, day-long drive down to the beautiful and warm city of Lhasa, all of us were feeling exhausted and shattered, after spending too many days exposed to icy blasting winds from the Tibetan Plateau. Nevertheless, after touring the gilded Potala Palace, watching the debating monks at the Sera Monastery, and sleeping in our quiet rooms for half of the day, several of our expedition members and about 500 Tibetans, spent the night in an enormous Lhasa disco and dance hall, dancing our selves silly with our new-found Tibetan disco friends, learning steps to some of the most beautiful and evocative group dancing I have ever done. Nearly the entire audience were out on the dance floor with arms linked, under the watchful scrutiny of the steely eyed Chinese soldiers, who wore pressed uniforms, arms folded across chests, army caps pulled low over their foreheads, brims covering eyes, skeptically witnessing the audience's expression of joy and solidarity.
In a final "goodbye" in a classically Tibetan moment of confusion, we flew on March 30 from Lhasa to Kathmandu, but before they let us on the plane, they weighed all of our baggage and tried to charge us an outrageous $1200 for excess baggage. We argued, and complained and cajoled, and after much squawking on our part, they lowered it to $900, but still, we considered ourselves stung. At the eleventh hour, the airport staff rushed us through immigration, customs, and security, and we trotted across the runway and ran up the steps into the plane, just as they closed the doors. On the way to Kathmandu, we flew over Mount Everest, and were treated to amazing views, including a distant glimpse of the towering eastern Nepalese giant, Kangchenjunga, the world's third highest peak, our next destination.
On April 1st, climbers for our 12 person Kangchenjunga expedition started arriving in Kathmandu, as our agent Murari Sharma from Parivar trekking began meeting their flights. Ours was the only team on the Northwest Ridge this season, and we felt remotely isolated in this little visited corner of Nepal. One of our members: Chris Grasswick, from Canada and Hong Kong, was never to return. The remainder of our team was made up of: Malte Hagge from Australia, Ian Lloyd and Paul Rowntree from England, Stuart Findlay, from Scotland, Daniel Mazur, Mike Farris, Mark Bryant, and Steve Dodson, from the USA; Felix Berg from Germany, Ivan Vallejo and Julio Mesias from Ecuador.
Chris Grasswick, characteristically precocious in everything he did, was one of the first to reach Kathmandu. I recall Jean Christophe and Martha commenting on how fit he was, during one evening when, after visiting a local watering hole, Chris pedaled a local driver's rickshaw back to our hotel with two passengers aboard. His legs pumped the pedals like a sewing machine, and the driver ran behind the loaded rickshaw shouting "slow down, slow down" in Nepalese, his sandals slapping the wet pavement in the night.
Other members, including Mark Bryant from Spokane and Ian Lloyd from London, continued to arrive. On April 2nd the Maoists announced a general strike throughout Nepal, and our team was delayed by around five days, as the roads throughout Nepal were being closed by strikers and home-made barricades. A few days later, as our bus crawled east across the now opened highways of Nepal, we saw a few burned out trucks and buses, bearing witness to the serious intentions of those determined Maoist members who manned the barricades, to stop all traffic activity in Nepal, at the threat of fire-bombing. At the time, I recall being rather disappointed and concerned that this delay would cost us valuable time, and, in fact, this was indeed to be the case, when 7 of our initial summit attempts missed a good weather period (16 May) by just 2 days, an amount of time we lost to the Maoists. So, I guess it might be fair to say, that the Maoists won the battle this time around, at the expense of the climbers.
Determined to continue, we kept plugging away and made our drive across Nepal and trekked into Kangchenjunga's 5100 meter basecamp. On 18 May, after working with all the members and our excellent Sherpas to put up the route, we started trying to reach the summit. I made two attempts, one on the 18th, and the other on the 20th. The first attempt by me, Felix Berg from Berlin, and Ivan Vallejo and Julio Mesias from Quito, Ecuador was stopped by high winds. On my final attempt, I climbed with Jangbu Sherpa, a very strong climber I had climbed with on Ama Dablam, famous rock-ice-and snow peak near Mt. Everest. On my last attempt this year on Kangchenjunga, we put on our Patagonia climbing suits and left the 7700 meter high tent very early in perfect weather at 5:30 am with good visibility and no wind, but by 7:00 am, at 8100 meters, as we traversed around the base of a massive rock buttress known as the "croissant", the wind had begun to scream, and was lifting masses of snow into the air, pummeling our faces with cutting shards of ice. We bailed back to basecamp, feeling in the pits of our stomach that this might be our last, after so many days waiting in the highest camps, and trying to reach the top twice, and being battered continuously by high winds. I was especially disappointed as this was my second expedition to Kangchenjunga. The first one, in 1997, ending in defeat when I was drawn into a four day rescue of one of our members, Roddy McArthur, from Scotland, who, exhausted from dehydration and malnutrition, had fallen off of a 10 meter high serac, and who we had to escort down the mountain (he was in shock, understandably), until we got him onto the 5300 meter glacier where a helicopter could pick him up. Luckily he was alright in the end, with only a few broken ribs.
As Jangbu and I continued our descent to basecamp, along the way, we rappeled through a 300 meter-high rock band at around 7000 meters. During our rappels through this section of mixed rock and ice, spindrift avalanches swarmed around us like snow snakes, and the icy wind howled through the holes in our helmets. Rapelling through one 6 meter chimney, I clumsily rounded a bend, being thrown to the side by my overly heavy rucksack, when I noticed that the rope 5 meters in front of me was broken!
Jangbu and I had fortunately been carrying an extra rope, and we spent the next hour delicately repairing the break. Oddly, 1 meter above the break, we found a rappel device trapped in the rope. Later we found out it had been intentionally cut. Making the last rappels, we noticed a group of team members below us, standing at the mouth of an ice cave which designated camp 3 at 6700 meters. When we arrived, we found Galu Sherpa huddled inside, in a sleeping bag with concerned members around him. Galu had apparently become stuck on the rope and Chris Grasswick and Stuart Findlay had worked heroically to bring him down to the cave, where Mike Farris from the USA, Paul Rowntree from the UK, and Malte Hagge from Australia had worked to revive him. Thank god Galu was alright, and thankfully suffered no frostbite. Emotions ran high as we all spent that night in camp 2, after the stressful rescue of Galu, and this was the last time I saw Chris alive, as he and I talked quietly about their upcoming summit bid, whether or not they wanted a Sherpa to join them (they didn't), and as I helped Chris plan his early descent from basecamp and return to Kathmandu (he had to return to work in Hong Kong before our expedition was officially to be finished).
Thinking back on the final moments I spent with Chris, I recall his determination, drive, enthusiasm and excitement for the climb. He was feeling well, and excited about the prospects of summiting. In the end, Chris and Stuart reached the summit of the Kangchenjunga on the 24th of May, the only day of good weather we had after the 17th of May.
Chris had been climbing together with his old friend and climbing partner Stuart Findlay that day. Chris, a 747 pilot living in Hong Kong, and Stuart, a rope safety expert on north sea oil rigs, had met when they climbed Shivling together in 1995.
After reaching the summit of Kangchenjunga at 3:15 pm that fateful afternoon of 24 May, the two were descending a 25 degree snow-slope, at around 8400 meters, and Stu was a few meters ahead of Chris when he heard his partner exclaim, and saw Chris sliding down the slope, then Chris suddenly disappeared over a rock edge, and as he went over the edge, his dropped ice axe and ski pole landed nearly at Stu's feet. Chris fell over cliffs and his body came to rest at around 8000 meters, just near the tents at high camp. The two had nearly returned to the high camp, the wind was calm, and the visibility was pretty good.
Chris and Stu had been two of the expedition's strongest members, well qualified, and very cautious. They had acclimatized well, having spent many days above 7000 meters, before returning to basecamp to rest, and then climbing to the summit. The two had been roped early in the day of their summit attempt, but had chosen to remove the rope as the climb entailed some rock scrambling, and they were concerned that the rope might slow them down, by getting hooked around rocky outcrops, and that if one person fell, they might pull the other one off the mountain. Also, they had declined the offer of a high-altitude Sherpa to accompany and assist them. They felt this would be "unfair means", and both Chris and Stu repeatedly stated that they wanted to do this climb as much as was possible "on their own".
As an expedition organizer and leader, this was the worst nightmare I could ever envision. A mere slip on a not-very-steep-slope had caused the death of someone I considered to be a new friend. I have probably organized and led more than two-dozen Himalayan Expeditions, and this was the first time one of the members of my climbing team had died. I hadn't known Chris before about November of 2001, but I considered him to be a new and dear friend. After his horrible death, his wife, father, sister, and old friend from his days as a fighter pilot came to Kathmandu to meet the team and pay their respects. Through these very sad and kind people, I felt as if I had come to know Chris in a deeper way, and my sense of loss became even more profound.
This shocking tragedy pulled our 12 person team of Britons, an Australian, Americans, Ecuadorians and 1 German together in some way. But, it also drove a wedge of realization between us. We all know that Himalayan climbing is a dangerous sport: 1 slip, 1 trip on a gaiter, 1 dropped ice axe, can end your life in a split second. Somehow for us mountaineers, this might add to the attraction, bringing that sharp edge of excitement and danger into what we are doing. However, seeing Chris' wife, family, and friend here in Kathmandu, spending our days with them, sharing their daily pain, brought a glimmer of realization to me as a mountain climber. What am I doing? Why do I do this? I thought over and over to myself through those sleepless nights, as I lay awake and relived the tears of his family and the memories of the shock of his death.
I pondered the wide impact that my climbing must have on the loved ones around me. A new light shone on how my own girlfriend, parents, and sister might feel about what I do and where I go. When I was starting my Himalayan climbing career, and I was reliving a story of a K2 expedition I led in 1992, where Ed Viesturs and Scott Fischer summitted, I remember my father, a 77 year old world war two veteran, saying to me: "What your generation needs is a war", and I think he may have been right. Are we seeking the edge of danger, looking for that precipice, that tightrope, to balance upon, where one false move will smash us into the earth, and end our lives? Do we need the reality of death lurking around the corner to make our lives more gripping, and to live fully, "in the moment"?
I caught another glimpse of grieving when I noticed that our ten Sherpas (6 worked in cooking fine meals and supplying basecamp, while 4 worked high on the mountain, carrying equipment and supplies up and down the route and helping the members), who did such a wonderful job and worked so hard during our expedition were surprisingly shocked by Chris's death. The night of 24 May, when Stuart radioed from the high camp to announce gruffly in a tired voice "Chris is dead", all of the staff sat down in a circle around a candle in the basecamp kitchen and said nothing, their faces frozen in shock and sorrow. They sat through the night, and eventually Steve Dodson and I, the only team members in basecamp at the time, retired to our own tents at around 10:00 pm. I couldn't sleep, and was having a craving for my first cigarette in two years, so I crawled out of my tent and went into the kitchen at 2 o'clock in the morning, and the same staff were still there, frozen into the same positions, as if they had been sprayed with lacquer. Later, Kaji Tamang, our basecamp and trek manager, cried as he compared Chris' tragic death to an avalanche accident on another expedition which had cost Kaji his ability to be a high-altitude climbing Sherpa.
The day after Chris died, it began snowing, and Felix, along with Ivan and Julio, tried hard to reach the summit, but were not able to penetrate the very high winds, and had a very difficult time, assisted by our Sherpas, getting back down off the mountain, and very very regrettably, a lot of our expedition equipment like tents and stoves had to be abandoned in the higher camps due to high danger of avalanche caused by deep snow.
Before we left basecamp, we mounted a plaque in Chris' memory, and attached it to a pile of rocks where another plaque honors the famous fallen climber, Chris Chandler. We stood around the plaque and said a few last words, paying our respects to Chris and saying goodbye. It was a very touching moment, there, in the shadow of the for once visible summit where his body still lay, covered in a meter of fresh snow. Then, as the last sentences were spoken, it began to snow, and continued snowing and raining for the next three days. In an ultimate symbolic gesture, we were driven out of basecamp and away by the weather, the encroaching monsoon leaving us unable to bring Chris' body back down.
My final touch with Chris came through saying good bye to his wife and sister and father at the airport, where I was in the check-in terminal and the check-in clerk was grilling them about why they were carrying so many bags, and I found myself having to explain to this Royal Nepal Airlines person about the death of this man, this climber, this pilot, and the sorrow of his wife, forced to bring back his duffle bags of climbing gear, but the climber was still on the mountain, and now what was she going to do with no husband, her best friend gone? The clerk thankfully understood, and the bags were placed on the slowly moving conveyor belt, and I watched with a thought that this would be my last touch with Chris, as his Serratus rucksack and large red duffle bag disappeared down a chute, a yellow warning light flashing. All of us had a tearful hug and goodbye, they boarded the plane, I watched it takeoff, carrying my dead friend's family, and then I went back to my room at the Hotel Nepa, shattered.
My final night in Kathmandu was spent in a hot sweaty disco, where I danced away the night with our Ecuadorian, German, and Nepalese friends, and we all went out on the floor under the colored lights and the booming music, and shook ourselves with abandon, to feel alive and to be wild dancers, and feel something other than pain again. As we took the last rickshaw ride home, we pedaled with a mighty effort, in remembrance and honor of our first meeting and Kathmandu nights in April with Chris and in some way to send a message of life and energy to Chris wherever he is, and to just say: "We miss you Chris Grasswick".
This brings us to the season's end. This 2002 spring climbing season would not have been possible without the amazing efforts and support of some very special people, and I wish to profusely thank Liz Carr, John Climaco, Mike Benge, Richard Laurence, Robert and Mary Mazur, Jon Otto, John Wason, Betty Ping Liu, Hans Schallenberger, Gordon Rose, EverestNews.com, Daniel Ferrer, Duane Morrison, Victoria Scott, Pamela Miller, Deborah Harrison, Patricia Peterson, and many, many others. Thank you.