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Below Brian Hall describes a terrifying nine hours spent with Doug Scott, Georges Bettembourg, and Al Rouse following the first ascent of the North Ridge of Nuptse in 1979. Descending, the four reached the notorious Khumbu Icefall just as it shifted.
Hall was one of the top British alpinists in the 1970s and ’80s and a survivor of a brilliant era that saw enormous tragedy and loss. The story below is an excerpt from his upcoming memoir, High Risk: Climbing to Extinction, forthcoming in November from Sandstone Press, on his adventures during the Golden Age of Himalayan mountaineering and the companions he lost.
Georges and Al stood at the edge of the Khumbu Icefall.
“Can you see the route?” Al asked.
“It’s completely gone. Look at those massive ice cliffs. We’ll have to go under them, but it’s a death trap.” A chaotic scene lay below us, as if a cataclysmic explosion had scattered house-sized ice blocks in every direction, leaving them perched over bottomless, black pits. The bombing of Guernica as an ice sculpture.
We set off under decks of seracs arranged like crazily angled playing cards. If one fell the whole pack would go. Occasional remnants of twisted ladders and frayed ends of fixed ropes protruded, almost apologetically, out of the ice. Nature has its own way and, for some reason, the glacier had become more active, faster flowing, or had changed direction. Perhaps we had angered the mountain deities and this was their retribution? Tibetans call Everest Chomolungma, meaning Goddess Mother of Mountains. Had we annoyed the giant matriarch when we climbed her daughter, Nuptse?
Tentatively, I abseiled into a crevasse with no apparent way out. A deep, blue tomb, it was beautiful but full of menace. What struck me most was the noise: haunting groans, creaks and crashes of ice, whooshes of small avalanches emanating from unknown directions, spraying my bearded face with powder snow. Worse still, the ground moved and shook underfoot.
On one occasion we had to climb back up and over large ice serac cliffs, formed in waves like a frozen rollercoaster. Doug’s features were normally a mask of calm, but here he looked visibly worried. Trapped in the guts of the Icefall, by a huge ice pit, we had no way out other than to climb its overhanging, three storey-high walls as they crumbled. Doug set off using our two remaining ice stakes and three ice screws while Georges sat below, holding his rope. With great skill he ascended, but near the top gave a terrified shout. “This whole face is detached. It’s going to collapse!”
Georges squirmed, directly in the firing line; he would surely be crushed beneath hundreds of tons of ice, and Doug would be hurled to the ground like a helpless doll. Al and I, who were ferrying gear, surrendered to the inevitable and moved away.
Time stood still. Georges audibly swore that he was going to die. Doug knowing time was short, thrashed and flailed with his ice axe and I am sure he was on the verge of tears as he flopped over the top. He lay still for a long time, his legs sticking out over the drop. Eventually he threw a rope for us to climb and join him. I have never climbed a rope so fast in my life. It was frantic, but this was our Rubicon.
We abandoned most of our possessions, keeping only a rope and a few essential pieces of gear, but didn’t care. We had no strength to carry them. Survival was the name of the game and we were fighting for our lives. First Al, then Georges, led down a blind alley. Thwarted, we retraced our steps, crawling on hands and knees through a jumble of ice boulders supported by who knows what. In the next hour they would certainly collapse.
Doug stopped and pointed. “Look at that enormous crater,” he said, “it must be a hundred feet deep.” He paused in wonderment. “It goes right down to the bedrock. I’ve never seen anything like it.”
We scrambled over more loose blocks, on occasions pulling each other out of crevasses, until we reached the area known as the Eggshell. It presented a gentler slope, but was deceptively dangerous. Our retreat was blocked by a huge crevasse and the only way across was to jump. It was my turn to take the lead. “Let the rope out fast as I run.” My voice sounded high-pitched and squeaky, as though someone else was talking. It was madness.
I shook the pack off my tired shoulders and walked up and down the “runway” stamping down the snow with my cramponed boots. At the edge of the crevasse I looked down. The jump looked massive, terrifying, and my only glimmer of hope was that the far side was slightly lower.
“Here goes,” I said, more to myself than the other three. Al coughed and tried to say something, but his voice was lost in his parched throat. Doug adjusted his harness and looked the other way, too nervous to watch. Georges sat in the snow, digging in his heels, braced as he held my rope. My life was in the hands of a jovial Frenchman I had only met a couple of weeks back.
I couldn’t see their eyes behind their dark glasses. Was their look one of hope or a last farewell? I could no longer put off the inevitable. Someone had to do it. Today, everyone had put their life on the line.
“Georges, give me plenty of slack,” I implored. “Are you ready?”
“Yes . . . Go,” Georges encouraged.
(Photo: Brian Hall)
I ran, ice axe gripped in one hand above my head, stretching for the other side, but . . . horror . . . the edge collapsed and I was falling. Instinctively, I dived forward and swung my axe. It held. There was no feeling of doubt, it was all in the moment and I lay, face pressed into cold snow that seemed strangely refreshing. For what seemed an eternity I was utterly spent.
A committed sadist or a spiteful god must have devised our last obstacle. When we looked down on moving dots of people at Base Camp I wondered, Are those Doug’s children playing? On a still day, our terrified shouts would have carried to them.
Stretching the full width of the Icefall, we were halted by a huge crevasse, crossed by a single old frayed rope stretched so tight it seemed to be horizontal. When plucked, I’m sure, it would have played high C. As the lower wall of the crevasse was moving downhill faster than the upper, it had stretched the once eleven millimetre rope to half its original thickness. It would snap soon. Without hesitation and with a wry smile, Georges clipped on his harness, hung under the tightrope and bravely hauled himself hand over hand to the far side. It was a Tyrolean traverse of the utmost strenuosity. Having towed our one remaining rope behind him he used it to pull us across.
On the other side the ground flattened, there were no more crevasses, and we walked across the benign moraine-covered ice to Base Camp. It was difficult to comprehend, but our ordeal was over. Calm and relief welled up in me. An intensely personal moment with the other three as adrenaline from the orgasmic rush of fear subsided. Our team had worked together to get down, and that was how we had stayed sane. Otherwise, our survival that day came down to luck. Doug called it Karma.
I sat with my head in my hands and cried, utterly drained, as people from Base Camp rushed to meet us. Our camp Sherpas, Nima and Ang Pherba, watched wide-eyed as Georges crawled on his knees, holding bits of moraine up in the air with both hands, reciting hoarsely in his mother tongue the full Catholic Hail Mary.
Shouting the ending, “Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
A veteran of perhaps fifty Icefall ascents and descents, Doug later reflected, “I don’t think any of us had ever been as scared for so long. For the nine hours it took us to get through the Icefall, we had written ourselves off. We had been through the worst day of our lives.”
Recovering in Base Camp, we discussed our forthcoming attempt on Everest, but after eight intense days on Nuptse we were exhausted. Three of my fingers were black with frostbite and Al had a hacking high-altitude cough. A plume of cloud sped across the summits like smoke from a power station cooling tower. A cold winter wind was blowing from Tibet and the first alpine style ascent of Everest would have to wait. I was certainly satisfied and happy with what we had achieved. I could do no more.
Doug’s words mirrored my thoughts … it was a very successful climb. Looking back, I think perhaps the reason for that was a unity of effort demanded by the situation – four men, out on a climb so far from home, on unknown ground, dwarfed by the highest mountain in the world. No wonder. We had come there more humble than usual, not out to prove anything, not to be the hard man, not to score points and put the other fellow down. It was a better climb for that.
From Chapter 9, “Survival of the Fittest – Georges Bettembourg,” High Risk – Climbing to Extinction, by Brian Hall. This chapter details a descent from the first ascent of the North Ridge of Nuptse by Hall, Doug Scott, Al Rouse, and Georges Bettembourg, in 1979.
Hall was also part of a small team that tried to climb Everest in the winter of 1980-81, without oxygen; he attempted the then unclimbed Cerro Standhardt, turning around just below the summit in an epic Patagonian storm; did winter ascents in the Alps and new routes in Peru; made the first alpine ascent of Jannu; and attempted the Ogre II, Chamlang, Shivling, Makalu and K2.
The book is divided into 11 chapters, each focusing on a different climbing companion, with too many as commemorations. Foreword is by Joe Simpson, author of Touching the Void.