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72 Hours In Hell: A Case Study in Suffering and Survival

The new route on a Himalayan peak was the hardest of high-altitude veteran Marek Holecek's life, and became a climb of epic proportions.

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In May, Czech two-time Piolet d’Or winner Marek Holeček and his partner Radoslav Groh spent four days pinned down high on a 7,000-meter peak in Nepal, Baruntse 23,389 ft (7,129 m), after summiting it via a new route on the West Face. In total, the Czech climbers were stuck on Baruntse for 10 days instead of the planned six, bivying at 6,900 meters (22,637 ft) amid brutal storms.

The duo christened their line Heavenly Trap (ABO+ M6+/VI+/80°, 1800 m), and dedicated it to the late Czech alpinists Petr Machold and Jakub ‘Kuba’ Vanek, who were lost on the peak in 2013. Holeček, one of the top alpinists of his generation, called Heavenly Trap the hardest route he has ever climbed in the big mountains.

Climbing reached out to the 46-year-old Holeček, now safe at home in Prague after an airlift from Baruntse to Kathmandu, for the inside scoop on his hair-raising adventure.

The line of Heavenly Trap, named in honor of their friends who perished on the wall in 2013. Photo by Marek Holeček

 How were conditions during the climb? What was the crux pitch of the route itself? When did the weather turn foul?

The acclimatization began with a 12-day trek, which was marked by heavy clouds and light snow. We walked over three 5,000-meter saddles: Renjo La, Kongma La and Amphu Lapsta La. The last mentioned 5,800-meter saddle let us into the Hunk valley, where Base Camp Baruntse was located. The weather of this spring season was not very successful, as it was cloudy a lot of time, even with light snow. There we still spent seven days waiting for the weather to clear up, used to go around the hills. When the day of our ascent to the west wall came, we were already perfectly prepared.

The west wall we were looking at from BC didn’t look very attractive this year. The snow cover was almost missing. This is due to the last dry years, when the snow disappeared from the places where it usually stays. Only old ice remained in the wall, and a lot of rock sections with poor quality rock. We had no more than 95% of the sections to climb from the belay place to belay place. Only a few sections, over ice plates, we climbed in parallel.

The danger of the wall had several levels. Climbing problems consisted of a large number of sections where we had to climb broken rock. The mixed terrain also gave us a touch, where the lack of quality ice slowed down our speed. It was also clear in the first third of the wall that we would not find a good place for a bivouac. The other two [thirds] were a little better. For the first two days, during which we climbed two-thirds of the wall, there was a great risk that we would be hit by rocks or ice falling from the upper passages. Fortunately, we climbed through the shooting range without losses. Then came a day and a half earlier unexpected change, which brought very bad weather and everything was suddenly different. Before we reached the ridge below the summit, the problems only increased.

Holeček’s Chronology of the Ascent

May 20: Late in the afternoon we leave BC in bad weather and spend the night on a glacier under the wall.

May 21:  An early morning weather report arrives on the satellite phone. We can move on. We cross a steep glacier under the wall. The snow does not hold and in some places we fall into the snow to the waist. That delayed us so much that we wouldn’t start climbing until 10:00 in the morning. All we have to do is wait until the next day and bivouac under the serac, which is located directly below the entrance to the wall.

May 22: We climb the first third of the wall and we are forced to camp in a very bad place.

May 23: We climb over ice fields and we manage to find a decent place to spend the night.

May 24: Unpleasant and difficult climbing in the rock belt, while it started to snow.

Mayy 25: In deteriorating weather we climb to the top of Baruntse and bivouac a little behind it almost on the top.

May 26: Thanks to the hurricane and the snow, we stay in the same place all day.

May 27: We descend a hundred meters below and build a bivouac on the ridge.

May 28: Again, thanks to the hurricane and the snow, we stay in the same place all day.

May 29: The morning is as painted, but it didn’t take long. Then came the clouds, which brought poor visibility with light snow. However, we manage to descent to the High Camp on the Baruntse saddle. We call [for support] who tell us that they are two days away from us and will not come due to the snow blowing in the valley.

The only question was where to send the helicopter. We decided to try to send the helicopter to High Camp. Our tent in BC will be picked up later when the snow settles. (We still don’t have it and it will probably only be possible with the autumn season).

May 30: At 7 o’clock in the morning we are picked up by a helicopter, from the place where the trek passes from the Hunku valley under Makalu. The end of the whole story.

Difficulties increased the higher they climbed.

You had friends who disappeared on this wall years ago. Going in, did that make things mentally more difficult for you than on other climbs? Also, how was your camaraderie with Radoslav? How did you maintain your spirits together as partners?  

I always prepare carefully for the ascent itself, both physically, skillfully, mentally, and logistically. The fact that unknown problems will come on new route is clear above the sun. This is an empiricism that I always have to deal with during the ascent. Or improvisation is an integral part of all new steps. The fact that the weather hit us this time is a risk, but at the same time the uniqueness of the first ascents. Learning to work with the psyche, when problems come, is a skill you have to acquire and it is the same training as with physical training.

Of course, the humming projectiles that carried death were falling from above.

So, we found ourselves in a hurricane and a massive snowfall. At that moment, I must not focus on the pain, thirst, hunger or winter that surrounds and bothers you, but on the horizon when change will come. It was a completely new experience for Radek (Radoslav), in which he found himself and had to succeed. I just helped him get through it. That was all.

We knew we had 72 hours of hell ahead of us, then the weather would turn. It is important to save energy for this moment, not to waste it in gloomy thoughts. These are some of the hardest moments when you know you’re weaker every hour. You fight with cold, high altitude and there is nothing you can do, because when the forces of nature storm, no one has a chance to push them. All you had to do was wait and hope that the weather forecast would really change. It happened exactly according to reports from Alena (our meteorologist at home).

Radoslav Grohm, tested on the climb and ordeal.

We [called] a helicopter to pick us up at High Camp, after those long days. We would still call the helicopter from BC, because there was a lot of new snow. It would take us at least two days to tread the trip to Khare in these conditions, and we probably wouldn’t even be able to do it. I was already slightly frostbitten on my arms and legs, and Radek already had frostbite as well.

As for my friends Kuba and Petr, who got lost [on the West Face] in 2013, I intentionally kept my thoughts going in a completely different direction when climbing, although we climbed around their tent, which is dug into the ice in the first third of the wall. I don’t know if they’re inside or swept away by an avalanche.

It is not even important, because, it is not the biological envelope that makes a person, but the soul. And the soul was gone, and only memories remained. Because of the memories, we dedicated this new route to them.

Setting up the high bivy as it storms.
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You’ve tackled a number of hard routes in your career. How did this experience on Baruntse differ? You’ve said Heavenly Trap is the hardest route you have ever climbed in the big mountains. Was the route itself hard, or did it only become hard after the weather turned bad?

I have managed more than 40 expeditions to various mountains of the world in the last 25 years. I climbed in Anataktida, Patagonia, Cordillera Blanca, Pamiro Alay, Hindukush, Karakoram, Himalayas. I had a chance to climb with amazing partners and there were exceptional first ascents, both in rock big walls or in mixes. In total, I actually have 16 first ascents with Baruntse as well.

I like all my first ascents as I do my children. They are just as beautiful and unique to my eyes

Why am I writing this, there is no nostalgia or desire to dust off the ascents again, but it is a range that I can compare with. Some of the first ascents may not have had the right media support at the time, so they are not so well-known. Some of the first ascents resonated so much that they entered the climbing subconscious. And a few of them succeeded and gained worldwide recognition.

Nevertheless, I like all my first ascents as I do my children. They are just as beautiful and unique to my eyes, but for some I have had to do much more to get the dream to a successful end. Baruntse [Heavenly Trap] is the most difficult route due to the fact that there were no easy lengths in this wall and the difficulties increased with increasing height. As a percentage, heavy climbing was significant in superiority over easy lengths. The weather only made us significantly uncomfortable and prolonged the descent. But it has no effect on the assessment of difficulties. Simply Heavenly Trap is a difficult journey.

Radoslav Groh and Marek Holeček. Photo courtsey Marek Holeček

Climbing is difficult and dangerous, and alpinists are used to discomfort. But being trapped in a bivy by ful weather, for days on end, unable to move … that is a different kind of discomfort and difficulty. So, how do you manage these types of situations, mentally?

Falls of avalanches, rocks, ice, seracs, sinks of glaciers, sudden changes in weather, is an integral part of movement in this environment. Of course, the humming projectiles that carried death were falling from above. Honestly, this can’t be completely avoided in the mountains. This can be partially eliminated by the speed of the upward movement. I can also trace the times when is the best time to go through the wall. These estimates are based on years of experience. However, the risk can never be ruled out completely.

Then the only thing is, if you are afraid of all these coincidences, then do not go to the mountains. I have experienced similar situations when we have become slaves imprisoned by a mountain several times. However, the longest wait was on Gasherbrum I. There, the weather stopped me at a height of 7,800 meters during my third attempt to climb a new route through the western wall. At that time, we were imprisoned by a hurricane for six days between a height of 7,800 and 7,400 meters. In total, Ondra Mandula and I survived an incredible 13 days in the wall at the time. We returned to BC 15 kilos lighter and frostbitten, but alive. Two years later, I climbed the wall on the fifth attempt with Zdenek Hák and got the first Piolets d´Or.

Marek Holeček, 46, is an accomplished Czech alpinist with numerous first ascents around the world. He recently pioneered new routes up the SW Face of Gasherbrum I (8,080 m/26,510 ft) and Chamlang (7,321 m/24,019 ft), both with Zdeněk Hák, for which he won Piolets d’Or in 2018 and 2020, respectively.