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South West Himlung Expedition 2012

Trip ReportJames Hipkiss

South West Himlung Expedition. September/October 2012 Himalayan Map House NP107 1:125,000 Nepa Maps Naar Phu 1:60,000 The photos didnt do it justice, nor did they give us a proper indication that we would have to climb a mountain in order to climb this mountain.

It was the first view we had had of Himlung since setting off on the trek and it was becoming clear that we would need all 19 climbing days in order to have any hope of summiting. The trek in to Himlung begins in Besisahar, the starting point for the Annapurna circuit. We arrived here on the 16th September. The monsoon had not quite finished and it was relatively quiet for the Annapurna circuit, being a little early in the season. We were to walk as far as Koto (4 days) and then turn off the circuit into the recently opened Naar/Phoo (Phu) valley and so to Base Camp. The Naar-Phoo valley is different to many of the valleys that trekkers normally visit. It is very narrow and as you continue up the valley it becomes apparent that it is a predominantly a river valley and has not been greatly affected by glaciation in its lower reaches. Koto to Phoo takes about 3-4 days depending on rest days, and acclimatisation rates. Phoo is at an altitude of approx. 3950m.

On the 25th we went from Phoo to Base Camp, 4800m having got our first view of Himlung at the top of the terminal moraine of the Pangri Glacier, We would have to go up and over the 6400m massif in front of Himlung, a fact that we knew but seeing it for real brought home how difficult this may yet prove to be. When we arrived we discovered we were the only team at Base Camp. Prior to our arrival, a small Swiss team had left having only gone as far as Camp 1. Apparently they did not like the look of the section between Camps 1 and 2 and so flew out by helicopter 3 days before our arrival. This meant that we would be opening the route for this season. We were carrying over 1000m of fixed ropes and at present, it looked like we would be laying all of it ourselves. After a couple of days acclimatisation around Base Camp we had the first day of carrying to Camp 1 at 5400m which was located at the edge of the glacier at the top of a rather torturous scree pile. Camp one was 700m below but in view of Camp 2. This first carry took approx. 6 hours. We also got to inspect some of the route to camp 2. It was a lot more crevassed than anticipated suggesting that it was going to take a bit more time to find the route through. After another rest day back at Base Camp, the team went back to Camp 1 and spent the night, before once again returning to Base Camp.

On the 1st October Ben and I along with our Sherpas went back up above Camp 1 to try and find a route through the upper crevasse sections to get camp 2 established. It came down to one small snow bridge which was to provide the key to opening the whole route. We fixed ropes to 5900m. By now there were 2 more teams at Base Camp. We were able to negotiate some more fixed rope from them in return for fixing the rest of the route to just above Camp 2 and some coils for the summit ridge should they be needed. The following days brought some bad weather so the team rested/acclimatised as best we could. On Friday the 5th, Ben, Jon and I decided to go back up through the fixed ropes (now fixed to Camp 2) and check conditions on the face.

We found there to be sections of deep soft snow but no real avalanche risk so we decided to go for Camp 1 on the 7th, and establish Camp 2 and 3 as we went so that hopefully we would have our summit attempt, all going well, on the 10th October. We had lost some time with the route finding and fixing the ropes .The forecast for the period between the 7th and 10th was good, as we were starting to run out of time we decided to go for it. We would carry three tents for 7 of us, carrying them between camps. One of the team had had a bad cough for the entire time and was struggling to acclimatise so after struggling to get to 5000m on the 7th he had elected to return to Base Camp and possibly try again the next day. This was a real loss as had he been fit he was one of the stronger members of the team, so for load carrying duties alone, it did affect us.

The walk up to Camp 1 was now taking only 2 hours compared to the original 6 and we were moving to Camp 2, fully laden by 7.30 the next morning. The snow was still quite soft but we made reasonable time, covering the 700m in about 5 hours. The Sherpas were ahead of us and had our tents put up by the time we got there. It was a windy night but nothing like what was to come at Camp 3. The winds continued at Camp 2 all night but had abated by 9am so by 10am we were leaving Camp 2. Camp 2 to 3 takes about 6 hours and reaches a high point of approximately 6400m before dropping to a col at 6250m and the site of Camp 3. It is quite exposed here as it is at the head of the Nemjung/Pangri glacier valley and the winds have nowhere else to go but over this col. That night at Camp 3 we experienced wind speeds averaging 50mph and gusting at 60-70 mph. The forecast wasnt quite accurate. Our tents were roped down but that didn't stop the snow from getting in-between the inner and outer of the tents, virtually sealing us in. At this stage there were just four of us plus the Sherpas, one other team member deciding that camp 2 was enough had gone back to Base Camp. As can be imagined we got very little sleep and by 5am, nothing had changed. We knew our summit chances were slipping away.

We were still in our tents at 9am when I had a chat with our Sirdar. We weighed up our situation. On the list against staying up and waiting for a chance at the summit was, strong wind and no sign of it stopping, a loaded summit slope which had already showed evidence of a large avalanche, one member feeling sick another getting there. On the list for staying up, Ben and I were feeling OK; we had no real choice but to go down. It took about 40 minutes to get crampons and clothing on, get the tents down and get roped up. All the while the winds never let up. Watches were showing temperatures of -22 degrees, with wind chill we reckoned it was about -30. Ungloved hands took seconds to go numb, which they did as we struggled to take down tents and keep them from blowing away. As a gesture we put up some prayer flags at our furthest point and then began the slog back across the slopes to Camp 2 and out of the wind. It seemed so incongruous, there wasn't a cloud in the sky it looked beautiful but the wind was vicious, we could feel it freezing any exposed skin, particularly on our faces.

It took about an hour and a half to get onto more sheltered slopes and about 4 hours to get back to Camp 2. Struggling to put up some prayer flags, Camp 3, the summit ridge of Himlung in the background. Once we had reached less windy and slightly more consolidated ground, Jon who had carried his skis (most of the way) to Camp 3 in the hope of getting the first British ski decent of Himlung decided that he had better get some skiing in to justify the effort of carrying them all that way. So from the top of the plateau to the small col above Camp 2 Jon skied, and fell for about ten minutes before deciding he had had enough and putting the skis back on the packs and continuing on foot. We stopped at camp 2 briefly for some food then continued on to Camp 1, collected some remaining equipment and then on down to Base Camp which we reached by dark at 6.30pm. On the walk out we passed maybe 5 more teams on their way in to Himlung.

Given how cold temperatures had got to, even at Base Camp, it was not going to be overly pleasant for these teams. On reaching Kathmandu we found out that one of the other teams (commercial trip) had gone up the day after we had come back down. They reached Camp 3 and had attempted the summit. They did not make it and one member of the team suffered frostbite on his feet. Conditions had obviously not improved up there. Thankfully they all got down OK. This knowledge did help with the disappointment of not Summiting in the sense that we felt better about our decision to come down and not push on in those conditions. Considering the collective (in) experience of my team, and taking into account that we opened the route and fixed all the ropes and still made it to the camp 3 springboard for the summit, I think we did extremely well and I am very happy with the result. The company we used for in country Logistics (http://rolwalingexcursion.com.np) are excellent and I have climbed with our Sirdar (Furtemba Sherpa) before. He is one of the best I have worked with. For 3 of the team who reached Camp 3 this was a new personal best in terms of altitude. It was a steep learning curve but one that they coped with exceedingly well. Thanks goes to the BMC for its endorsement of the trip.

Also to Buff for the 5 Buffs each and lastly to Wayfayrer for providing all our high altitude food. South West Himlung 2012 team members; Olan Parkinson ( Irl) Sandra McCord (UK) Justin Featherstone (UK) Ben Reynolds (UK) Jon Fuller (UK) Claire Waterfall (UK) Furtemba Sherpa (Sirdar) Doame Sherpa (Climbing Sherpa) Ang Du Sherpa (Assistant Climbing Sherpa) Ringsee Sherpa (Cook) Nima Sherpa (Cook) Razinda Sherpa (Kitchen boy) Olan Parkinson. Expedition Leader, Himlung 2012. A note on the maps. The Nepa Map series puts the Base Camp in the 6A grid square, this is incorrect (for the current base camp) It is in fact in the 7A grid square between the 4800m and 5000m contours below the fork in the stream on the west of the square one quarter of the way up the grid square. GPS, 4850m N 28degrees 47.687, E 84degrees, 20.653 approx. The Himalayan Map house location is correct.