2003 Golden Piton Awards: Mountaineering
Photos by Willie and Damien Benegas
The Crystal Snake, North Buttress of Nuptse
Doug Scott, an early proponent of alpine-style climbing in the Himalayas, used to say that you have to completely write yourself off before any big Himalayan climb. Those who have been there know that Scott is right. Cutting-edge Himalayan climbing is about commitment: small parties moving fast and light on the highest, most technical faces on the planet. Fixed ropes, large support teams, and heavy bolting continue to subdue many daunting objectives, but it has been decades since these tactics contributed to the advancement of the discipline itself. Our award takes into account not just the magnitude of the climb, but the level of commitment and challenge chosen by the climbers.
In 2003, the three most impressive high-altitude ascents all took place on 7000-meter peaks in Nepal. The much-tried Southeast Buttress of Nuptse’s virgin East Summit (7804 meters) was finally climbed by a determined Russian team. Valeri Babanov and Yuri Koshelenko deserve credit for succeeding on a fierce route that turned back more than 17 years of attempts, but we were disappointed by the style in which the line was dispatched: fixed ropes on the first 1200 meters of the route, which had a history of extremely bold alpine-style bids.
Nearby, the British/American team of Ian Parnell, Kenton Cool, and John Varco succeeded on the first ascent of Annapurna III’s Southwest Ridge, in excellent style. They spent nine days on the 2500-meter route, which included sections of 5.10 X climbed in double boots, and pitches of vertical ice. Unfortunately, they encountered extensive fixed ropes on the lower part of the ridge, purportedly left by a Slovenian attempt in 2000. With ropes dangling in front of them, they succumbed to jugging the odd section — who wouldn’t? — sullying what otherwise would have been a perfect alpine-style ascent. The presence and use of the old lines on the Annapurna ascent points less to any failing of the successful team, as to the damage caused to an objective when retreating teams don’t clean their ropes.
Balancing style, stature, and purity of line, our vote for high-altitude climb of the season goes to the alpine-style ascent of the north buttress of Nuptse (7861 meters) by the Benegas twins Willie and Damien. Unlike the Southeast Buttress on the opposite side of the mountain, The Crystal Snake, as they dubbed their line, had never seen an attempt, and from the first pitch the Benegas brothers found themselves on pristine, untouched ground.
Their first attempt ended 10 pitches up when their stove malfunctioned. Three days later they returned and quickly retraced their path to a bivi at 6500 meters. During the preceding weeks, Damien developed a bad cough, leaving him with a painful cracked rib, so Willie took the lead for the entire climb. Heavy snows plagued their six-day ascent, and without a tent, they were constantly pounded by spindrift on the small ledges they hacked into the ice each night. Sleep was all but impossible and their down sleeping bags froze solid.
By day six the twins found themselves 42 pitches up the buttress, low on food and fuel, facing high winds and heavy snowfall. Looking at their rack of 10 ice screws and a few nuts, pins, and slings, it was obvious they didn’t have enough gear to rap the 4000-plus feet of steep rock and ice beneath them. “The only way off was up and over,” says Willie. Just as things were beginning to look truly bleak, a window in the clouds revealed the top of the buttress, just a short distance away. All that remained was an easy romp up the North Rib. At 1 p.m., the brothers stood arm in arm on top of the world’s 22nd highest peak.