Annapurna III – One of a kind
“My hope for this amazing route is that it will be climbed by fair means. If climbing were a solution to an engineering problem, it would cease to be an art. Art is the beauty in mountaineering.”
The 3000 meter southeast pillar of Annapurna III saw its first major by fair means attempt already back in 1981, when the Brits Nick Colton and Tim Leach got to about 1000 meters from the summit. Without a doubt, they were part of the vanguard of the then young alpine style movement in the Himalayas. Had they reached the summit, their route would surely stand in the hall of fame of Himalayan alpinism.
Unlike Colton and friends we did not do the very dangerous approach to basecamp. After porters of another expedition died during the trek, the following teams flew into basecamp, and so Hansjörg Auer, Alex Blümel and I took the helicopter from Kathmandu to reach basecamp at 4600 meters.
The southeast pillar of Annapurna III. Everyone I know who has seen this phenomenon speaks of it in the same terms we reserve for eclipses, wild storms, giant waves. (….) “When I first saw it,” Nick says to me, “I thought, ´For fuck’s sake.’ It’s awesome.”
Ed Douglas, Alpinist Magazine
When we saw the pillar, we felt the same than Nick Colton 35 years earlier. It is a well know fact that mountains appear bigger from below than they look on photos, but we felt very tiny below Annapurna III.
Hansjörg, Alex and I spent a few days acclimatizing on the east ridge of Annapurna III. A round and comparatively flat shoulder leads to 6000 meters relatively quickly and safely. It offered the perfect terrain to prepare us for the southeast pillar.
Just when we were ready to go, our meteorologists Charly Gabl and Alex Radlherr announced a “weather window” during which it would not snow less than normal during the afternoon. Not really perfect weather for such a difficult climb, but the chances of getting something better were about zero.
Annual precipitation in the Annapurna region is more than 5600mm. In the not exactly desert-like Glasgow in Scotland, it is about 1100mm.
The first day of our attempt went promisingly well. For once, the weather did not follow the statistics. There was almost no precipitation and we climbed from the base at 4700 meters to the first step at 5900 meters, where we bivied behind a sérac.
The next part of the route, which follows mixed terrain directly on the ridge, was described as “not hard” by Colton. That was some serious sandbagging. We quite often came across gear that the Brits had left on the climb, but the terrain there was anything but “not hard”. On almost all pitches, difficult mixed climbing forced us to hang our ice tools onto our harness and resort to direct aid.
Due to the cold, the wind, and the strong snowfall, we climbed in full winter outfits. What had seemed like “UIAA 5 and 5+” to the Brits took us to our limit. An uncomfortably tight chimney that Colton described as “particularly tiring” was truly desperate. At first, I inched a few feet up, and as I couldn’t move any further and lost grip with my crampons, slid a few feet back down. I took off my down jacket, and toiled upwards, partly free climbing and partly pulling on the sparse gear.
We set up our bivy at 6400 meters.
The third day was even more strenuous.
An overhanging pitch forced me to aid climb on microstoppers and small friends – at that altitude quite a toilsome and tiring undertaking. After only 150 meters of elevation gain, we set up our bivy in heavy snowfall. Based on their descriptions, we were at about the same height than the Brits when they turned around. Our chances to reach the summit, in these conditions, and our thus slow pace, were quite slim. In the evening, there was a new weather forecast: the weather window was ending earlier than anticipated. We immediately knew what that meant, but still discussed all imaginable options. In the end, we had no other choice than beginning the descent the next morning. Despite the difficult terrain, and apart from one incident where our rope got stuck, the rappels went quite smoothly.
Back in basecamp, Hansjörg and Alex sort of had enough, even though motivation would surely have come back if we had heard something else from our meteorologists than that “it won’t get better the next few days”. After ten days we had to face reality: More and more precipitation was approaching, with no improvement in sight. Sad, and happy at the same time, we embarked on the journey home. It won’t have been the last time, that I attempted this dream line.