The Hunco Face Of Kwangde

On top oj CoU Mountain the

Lone round moon

Lights the whole clear cloudless

Honor this priceless natural


Concealed in jive shadows

Sunk deep in the flesh

—Han Shan, Cold Mountain Poems (translated by Gary Snyder)

1 first saw Kwangde's North Face in November 1981, after the American Medical Research Expedition to Mount Everest, That expedition had been long on learning, short on the art of free-willed movement over technically difficult terrain that excites me. At the end of the expedition, my then-wife, Janie, met me at Lobuje, a yak herders' summer village below Everest base camp, and the two of us spent ten days wandering along the trails and through the villages of the Solo Khumbu, Everywhere we went we met Sherpa friends who welcomed us in and seated us in favored positions by their fires. They fed us potato pancakes with spicy yak butter, which we washed down with enough chang, the local alcoholic beverage, to keep us smiling. All the while the mountains were magnificent: towering amidst swirling afternoon clouds or the watery light of dawn, or silhouetted against a cobalt sky filled with stars. My camera was ecstatic, while my climber's bones ached for that pillar on Pumori, that face on Lhotse, that ridge on Teng Kangpoche.

One afternoon we strolled up a path we hadn't traveled before. Almost suddenly, the foreground ridge across the river dipped and, like a curtain parting, revealed the northern flank of Kwangde rising above the small village of Hungo. Reptilian tongues of ice flicked down over dark boilerplate slabs of granite. From the moraine at the foot of the wall to the jutting summit spire, only three snow ledges broke the extreme angles. Fifteen hundred meters on the map, nearly 5,000 feet. Janie, who doesn't climb but who knows me well, had a great suggestion: "Why don't you come back and climb it, Jeff?"

Almost exactly a year later, David Breashears and 1 set up base camp in an unused potato field in Hungo. Our sirdar and friend, Nima Tenzing, paid off the yak driver who had transported part of our food and gear, and asked several porters to help us carry our stuff to a camp beneath the face. From there David and I wouldn't require any assistance. Nima and his kitchen boy, Sonam, immediately moved into the home of the family who owned the field where we were camped. David and 1 pitched our tents, but after the first night we were drawn indoors for our evening meals by typical Sherpa hospitality.

By the light of Nima's kerosene lamp we became acquainted with the members of the family. The head of the clan was a Tibetan whose claim to ninety years

Bill« camp in the village of Heigo, below the North FdCt of KwAgfc (Photo: Jeff Lows)

seemed to be verified by his wizened face and fragile limbs, although such longevity is exceptional in the region. It was extremely painful for the old man to move from his normal lotus position by the fire, so he seldom did. The night before we went up, he told us we were the first tourists to stay in Hungo. He also said that below the mountain was a cave in which a yeti lived, and that if we managed to succeed in our attempt on the wall, it would prove we were the world's best climbers. Naturally, we were inclined to believe all these things!

The ancient Tibetan's wife was perhaps thirty years his junior, She had a nearly toothless, kindly grin that drooped on one side, but showed us that she really didn't mind this invasion of strangers, Two much younger members of the household were, according to Nima, the son and daughter of the old couple. This seemed more than a little unlikely, since the boy could not yet have been twenty, and the girl at least several years younger. He had the look of a fugitive from the 1950s climbing era of English hard-men: dirty face, wool knickers, a sweater hanging in rags from his short, stocky frame, and a happily demented smile. She was small, shy, and mute, and signaled by gentle moans and whimpers that she had arrived at our tent in the morning bringing tea. Spending time with these people allowed us to become more attuned to existence in their land and better prepared to climb their mountain.

I was lucky to have David as a partner. Although his alpine and Himalayan experience was limited at the time, his natural climbing abilities were even then almost legendary. As a seventeen-year-old he had earned the moniker 'The Kloeberdanz Kid'' for his almost casual second ascent of a free rock climb in Eldorado Canyon, Colorado, that had developed a huge reputation as being impossible to do statically. David found a new combination on the crux roof and blew the preconceptions away. In 1975 he went on to make the first ascents of some unprotected and extremely difficult face climbs,- the most famous, Perilous Journey, a 5.1 IX on Mickey Mouse Wall, high above Eldorado Canyon, did not see a second ascent for a number of years and is widely recognized as one of the high-water marks of free-climbing boldness.

1 met David in Eldorado Canyon shortly after these climbs and hired htm as an assistant for rock and ice climbing courses offered by my International Alpine School, established in 1976. He took to ice with his typical intensity, I remember once having to ask him not to solo climb in front of the students, as he was thirty

Above: David Bieusheors greeting the sun on the summit of Kwangde

Opposite: David Bieashears high on the North Fixe of Kwangde ■ttk end of the fourth day. Mahal« is the pyramidal peak in the background. (Photos: Jeff Lowe)

Above: David Bieusheors greeting the sun on the summit of Kwangde

Opposite: David Bieashears high on the North Fixe of Kwangde ■ttk end of the fourth day. Mahal« is the pyramidal peak in the background. (Photos: Jeff Lowe)

feet up an 80° ice fall, testing the limits of climbing with one tool. I shouldn't have worried. As always, he found a way over the bulge, effecting an extreme mantel, getting the frontpoints of his crampons in level with the pick of his axe and carefully standing up. In David's first year of ice climbing we were doing notable new routes together. Davids trademark boldness can be experienced on climbs like The Skylight and Cravity's Rainbow in southwest Colorado.

When David and 1 went to Kwangde, he was undergoing a personal crisis. His early years had been so completely devoted to climbing that his social, financial, and even emotional life had been relegated to a back seat. At twenty-five he was introverted, and self-doubt was inevitable. He openly wondered where he was going with his life. On an acclimatization jaunt into the Thame Valley, we ran into Reinhoid Messner and his team, who were trying to make a winter ascent of the South Face of Cho Oyu (which would ultimately prove unsuccessful) Reinhold's overtly successful persona was hard for David to confront and raised questions about his own current lack of direction. ! tried to counsel that although Messner's public and financial success was well-earned, he would never be able to measure up to David's brilliance in certain psychologically/ physically/technically extreme climbing situations, and therefore David should feel satisfaction with his own abilities. But such talk is facile and ineffectual unless it comes from within.

David's performance on Kwangde proved inspirational to me. His climbing on 300-foot, virtually unprotected thin-ice leads with a heavy pack forced me to climb well also. As usual, the first day on the route was mentally the toughest. The ice was steeper {90°) in places than we had expected, and intermittent,- instead of a continuous flow, we had to deal with breaks caused by overlaps in the underlying rock slabs. The ice was feather-thin at each key transition, offering less-than-substantial tool placements and very little protection. Spindrift was a problem. High winter winds scoured the summit ridges for any stray flake or grain of snow, and the immense scale of the upper bowls assured that tiny rivulets of flowing crystals eventually joined into a series of streams that traced the fingers of ice in the lower wall, one of which we were following. Often we would have to wait several minutes in the torrent, heads ducked for breath, until the flow cased and we could continue. Contrasting with the inexorable conditions present on the leads, we found a quality of ice unique in our experience. The very currents of spindrift we cursed were responsible for the formation of a climbing medium like unfired porcelain,

Kwangde's ice presented an opaque, yet deeply revealing mirror to David and me. The second day, out of a BAT tent bivouac, David tied two 300-foot, 9mm ropes together to reach a safe belay. I followed his mega-lead and made an easier one of my own, doglegging on steep snow around the lower rock band to arrive below a vertical 150-foot rock band in the middle of the face. The passage was thinly draped with ice separated from the rock by several inches, tike a curtain concealing a false window. We spent a second night below this obvious crux, observing, for the first time, clouds creeping up the finger valleys of the Khumbu, licking the bases of Everest, Cho Oyu, Ama Dablam, Tawoche, Makalu, and the other mineral denizens of the region. A waxing moon illuminated the scene. The wind died, leaving us to contemplate personal visions while we passed rehydrated rations between our individual hanging tents.

In the morning David led a short pitch to position us for the crux. 1 welcomed the next lead, preferring to embrace the unknown reality directly. At twenty feet I placed a couple of questionable pitons in the rock on the left side of the ice and began to weave my way up, connecting the most trustworthy segments of ice. After an hour, near the top of the pitch, with the last reliable protection a hundred feet below, 1 achieved an uncommon state of equilibrium. My tools continually sliced through the thin, fragile ice, but each time this happened, 1 was prepared to shift my weight instantly to the other tool and my feet, and work with the placement until it held, never feeling panic. This sort of freedom from animal fear is rare but at times useful, and 1 have experienced it a number of times on serious routes. Finally, I reached a solid belay on the snow slope above the rock band.

Later that day David led a long, beautiful pitch up a narrowing and steepening gutly to the left of a prominent black prow. Although not as difficult as the crux, the last section was a vertical, ice-filled chimney that gave excellent hard climbing, David's pitch led to a smaller ice field above the black buttress. We bivouacked again at the upper edge of the ice field, where it tapered into vertical rock. Once again during the night a nearly full moon shone on the spectacle of cloud fingers filling the valleys, eventually making islands of all the peaks.

The last day on the face began with normal 50° to 60° alpine ice climbing up and toward the right from our bivouac until the slope steepened deceptively into a 300-foot-high bulge of 70° to 85° thin ice. I had started up the bulge wearing my pack. Partway up 1 hung it from a short Snarg in order to continue running out the full 300-foot rope to arrive at a little rock outcrop and belay above the last real difficulty of the climb. David and 1 swung several more mammoth leads up 60° ice to a short rock exit from the face. We had already spent three nights cooking, eating, and sleeping in hammocks suspended from anchors in the rock. After sunset on this fourth day, we emerged from the face onto the cold, windy crest of the

Northwest Ridge, 300 feet below the top. We spent hours in the dark, hacking a coffin-sized cave from the ice of an old cornice.

The next morning we greeted the sun like a long-lost friend and scrambled to the summit over the terra cotta blocks of the ridge. On top we shook hands and sat down, our packs still on our backs, to marvel at our position. A few miles east and 8,000 feet below, across the deep canyon of the Dudh Khosi, the villages of Namche Bazaar and Kumjung clung to the hillside like something out of Tolkien, and we could clearly see the trails leading deeper into the Khumbu toward Ama Dablam and Everest. Further east, on top of a hill beneath the ice-topped fortress of Kangtega, the Thyangboche monastery seemed especially well placed for a spiritual nucleus. 1 asked David if he thought any of Messner's climbs on 26,000-foot peaks could have brought him any greater satisfaction than this. David's answer was simple, and the truth of it could clearly be seen in his dark eyes, which were now shining in the clear, cold air: "No," he said. "This is the best."

Our stay was short. Mere moments of inaction felt like days to us after our all-consuming climb. Fifteen minutes after summiting, we began the long descent.

Just before dusk the next day we arrived back in Hungo and were greeted by Nima, who came running to hug us. Sonam and the old man's son helped us off with our packs. The quiet daughter beamed and scurried into the stone house, soon returning with sweet tea. Several urchins from the few surrounding houses appeared from nowhere, chattering and laughing excitedly. With her eyes rolling back in her head and her tongue lolling out between a large gap in her teeth, the mother pantomimed her fear that we had died on the mountain. She squeezed my hands long and hard in hers, not releasing me until she saw that I understood how much David and 1 had worried her. In waning light we were ushered into the home of our friends. The old sage sat by the embers of the fire. He waited impassively for us to report on our adventure. We told him we hadn't seen the yeti. ▼

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