Hubris On Nanga Parbat

An old rough draft about out first attempt on Nanga Parbat in 1988.


A strange thing happens in the mountains - the higher you go the more you are transformed into that person who can actually climb the mountain. I am not the same person up there that I am when I sit behind my desk.

Once we started climbing, we did not consciously concentrate. Instead, because we had stripped away everything that could possibly distract us only the climbing remained. And with one single thing to occupy our attention we could take events as they came. We were hyper-aware of every detail around us: snow and ice conditions, tool placements, how well each of us was moving, and we gave ourselves over to that awareness.

  • There were no "what ifs?"
  • No plans that did not turn out
  • No unfulfilled expectations
  • No conjecture about if, how or when to turn back
  • Only the present and what happened in it

Each individual was responsible to monitor his status and communicate it to the others if they did not pick up an anomaly. This is crucial to the success of any team -- at the edge of the possible one cannot afford to be surprised by a partner suddenly unable to do his share of the work, for whatever reason.

Someone should have been watching the weather but we were in deep enough with what was in front of us that no one had the extra capacity for it. Besides it had been sunny for days, why should tomorrow be any different? And if it is we'll deal with it then.

The route was obvious, linking weaknesses in the mountain's defenses. Conditions were OK and we virtually ran upward.

  • We gained 3100 feet the first day
  • We gained 4700 feet the second day
  • We gained 2500 feet the third day
  • We gained 984 feet the fourth day
  • We gained 2300 feet on the fifth day

These numbers are crazy for the Himalaya where the norm is 1000 feet a day and only a few hotshots were (and are) knocking out more than we did, and that generally occurs on much easier, well-trod routes.

But our skill and fitness and acclimatization also brought problems. Ward (who had not been on the Schell Route to acclimate with us) kept up during each of the first three days but he was clearly suffering. And he kept us informed so there would be no surprises. We were all moving well so we told him to take a spot on the back of the train and do his best to keep up -- we would do all the work. Without judgment. By day five it was not enough and we slowed the pace to accommodate his altitude sickness. But we were close to the top and no one was going to give up. It looked like we might actually do it. Especially with weather that good.

As soon as it was said or thought the trap opened, tempting us higher, up the hardest pitches yet. And then the trap snapped shut. We had climbed from base camp at 11,000' to 25,300' in five days.

What did our arrogance deserve? Certainly not a mild storm. It came on strong, gusting winds, with thunder, lightning, and driving snow. St Elmo's fire danced from rock to rock across the ridge above us. It sounded like something tearing, punctuated by gut-churning explosions, louder than any rock concert I'd ever attended. Barry and Kevin tried to dig a cave for shelter so we could sit it out but the snow wasn't deep enough anywhere. What fell quickly avalanched away, down into the funnel beneath us. Ward was sicker with each minute that we stayed up high so I shouted that we had to descend. At least out of the gully, and to the shelter of overhanging rock.

Until then it all seemed perfectly normal: climb until you are stopped by weather or by something you can't climb. If it's weather seek shelter and wait it out. If it's an impassable section find a way around or retreat. But the stage this played out on was too high and our appreciation of the situation was fogged by altitude and fatigue.

As we rappelled into the tube of the funnel the avalanches, ankle-deep to that time, deepened. First to the knees, then the waist. On the second rappel I got flipped upside down by a deeper wave but held by my belay device on the rope. At the bottom of the third rappel we were all clipped to a single ice screw when the big one hit with express train force, sweeping all of us off of the sixty-degree ice. It hammered us for minutes and those felt like hours. No one could move, or raise an arm to swing an ice tool or try to place a back-up screw. We were beaten, pummeled.

We had talked in base camp about having come there for a fight and that fight was upon us and all that mattered was how we acted during the next few hours.

When the avalanche subsided, Ward's face was turned upward. His goggles and hood packed with snow. He said, "I was going to just unclip and get it over with." His fight was over. We could only take him with us as we continued our own struggle. We reached easier terrain at 9pm, feeling like we still had some control. I started digging a ledge where we could put Ward -- hypothermic by that point -- into his sleeping bag and fire up the stoves. Barry and Kevin were cleaning the last of the seven rappels. Barry planned to down-climb because he was worried that the ropes would jam if we pulled them diagonally from below.

            "Kevin, I'm letting go of the ropes!"

            "Ok. I let go," answered Kevin.

            I suppose that's when we lost control, but no one noticed its departure or that of our only two ropes. Barry and I down-climbed to our last bivouac at 23,000 feet. Kevin took care of Ward, intending to join us later.

Setting up the bivouac I dropped a tent. Too tired to get mad I started digging a snow cave. The storm kept up through the night. Morning was no better. We had to get off the face. Reinhold Messner (one of the four to have climbed it) wrote in his book The Big Walls, "It is impossible to descend the face in a storm so keep the high camps well stocked". We ran out of food that morning.

Packing up, Ward asked where the ropes were. The answer horrified us: we were 12,000' up the biggest wall in the world without any ropes.

  • I thought we had won
  • I did not think the fight would last any longer
  • I thought it enough that after such good effort we were failing
  • I felt stupid
  • I was too tired to take the ultimate test

But that test is what distinguishes the fiery from the faint. Confronting it you are either pointed or pointless. You never know when you might have to take it. So it's worth holding something in reserve, just in case.

I had a hat. I wrote "Never Quit" on the brim. It was a hard phrase to live up to. The choice is always there. To sit down and freeze to death, to volunteer to fail, or to go for it and maybe, probably die trying.

No one suggested anything but giving it our best shot. We all knew that if the gods demanded a sacrifice Ward would be it. The terrain was steep enough that we needed rope to get down crucial sections. The face was littered with sun-rotted ropes left on previous attempts. Maybe we could find one that would hold our weight. Or not. And maybe one of us would fall off down-climbing and take the others with him.

Salvation comes in many forms. At the top of one of the steeper passages Barry spied a sun-bleached pack clipped to some pitons. He cut it open looking for food and started shouting. He began tossing us candy bars. Then came a tent, a stove, dozens of pitons, ice screws and from the bottom two brand new ropes. We weren't down yet but it started looking good.

We rappelled and down-climbed until dark. I dug another cave. We descended through the continuing storm the entire seventh day, reaching base camp at 6pm. - in the pouring rain.

Mark Twight
Mark Twight