Alpine style in the Himalaya
In a week when Mt Everest grew by nearly one metre, we lost Doug Scott who with Dougal Haston was the first to scale the formidable southwest face of the world’s highest mountain. He was one of the earlier proponents of climbing Alpine style -- ascents without bottled oxygen, fixed ropes and porters, not expeditions that are executed like military offensives.
Among the people Scott and his generation of ‘clean climbers’ inspired were Élisabeth Revol and her climbing partner Tomasz Mackiewicz, Nirmal (Nimsdai) Purja and Voytek Kurtyka. Their adventures in the mountains are relived in three recent books that are tales of triumph and tragedy in the Himalaya.
On 25 January 2018, Revol and Mackiewicz reached to the top of Nanga Parbat (8,126m) the world’s ninth highest peak in the Karakoram. This was the second winter ascent of the mountain, and Revol was the first woman to do so. It was already dark when they got to the summit, Mackiewicz became snow-blind, and had severe altitude sickness and frostbite.
Revol’s book To Live: Fighting for Life on the Killer Mountain tells the story of her heroic rescue from the Nanga Parbat by two Polish climbers who were on K2 at the time, and the trauma of not just the harrowing descent, but also of having to abandon Mackiewicz in a crevasse at 7,280m on Nanga Parbat’s northwest face.
Called the ‘killer mountain’, this enormous pyramid of ice and rock has been claiming climbers’ lives for the past 140 years. The first two Nepali casualties in a Himalayan mountaineering expedition were with British climber Albert Mummery in 1895 when they fell to their deaths on Nanga Parbat.
Six more Nepalis were among nine killed in a German expedition in 1934, then 16 others were killed in an avalanche three years later. German climber Heinrich Harrer was captured in 1939 at Nanga Parbat by the British, later fled to Tibet, and wrote Seven Years in Tibet about his adventures and friendship with the young Dalai Lama.
To Live is Élisabeth Revol’s attempt to come to terms with the loss of her climbing partner, relive the three nights she spent on the mountain waiting for the rescue, and two years later, rationalise for herself why she descended alone.
Revol’s account is almost like stream of consciousness diary entry, re-experiencing the thrill of climbing, the shock of discovering that her partner had gone blind on the summit, and carrying him down a treacherous slope of black ice in the dark.
This is an extreme saga of survival against all odds. The book reads like the other mountaineering classic, Annapurna, written by Revol’s compatriot Maurice Herzog about the first ascent of an eight-thousander 70 years ago.
After staying at 6,780m for a helicopter rescue that does not happen, Revol decides that instead of waiting to die, she would risk going down the Mummery Spur despite severe frost bite, hunger, thirst, fatigue, the darkness and no climbing gear.
This is also adventure literature at its most spellbinding:
‘Everything seems improbably, unreal. I’m descending at night, without a head torch, on a route I don’t know, without any equipment; no ice axe or belay device, no French prusik, no ice screws or dynamic rope. Without having a drink for 55 hours at least. Almost sleepless for 80 hours apart from my daydreams and last night’s hallucinated torments.’
This is not a spoiler, since the whole world knows the story: the rescuers arrive.
‘Suddenly a beam of light from the slope below pierces the darkness. They climbed up? My God, they climbed up, they climbed up! The beam of the head torch shines on me and I hear: “Adam I have her”.’
To Live is a very personal account in which Revol shares the terror of the descent, her friend’s obsession and spiritual bond with Nanga Parbat, and she ends her book with a letter to Tomasz Mackiewicz that is a farewell, and also a personal closure.
‘Tomek had freely decided to be free, to make the purity of the mountains his noble passion ... Thank you, Tomek, for being what you were.’
As a child in France, Revol had a poster of Mt Everest on her bedroom wall. So, a year after the tragedy on Nanga Parbat, while still wrestling her demons, she decides to climb Everest. She negotiates the traffic jam in May 2019 to descend to the South Col, and also re-climbs Lhotse. She describes the feeling:
‘The sunrise over Nepal and the Valley of Silence is magnificent. What luck! I indulge myself in my kingdom, far away from the world, in my element, in solitude. The mountain welcomes me with kindness for the time being ...’
It is also on Nanga Parbat that Nimsdai Purja begins Beyond Possible: One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks – My Life in the Death Zone with an account of his near-death experience after slipping on ice at almost the same point where a year previously Élisabeth Revol had made her second night’s bivouac on the Kinshofer Route. It was his presence of mind, acute situational awareness and survival instinct that allowed him to arrest his fall.
In tone and content, the Revol and Purja books could not be more different. While To Live is about survival, Beyond Possible chronicles an ex-Gurkha commando’s never say die ambition to attain the impossible – climb the world’s 14 highest mountains in seven months. He ended up doing it in 6 months and 6 days, when the previous record by Korean climber Kim Chang-ho was 7 years, 10 months and 6 days.
Labeling this kind of extreme mountain-hopping ‘Alpine style’ is not adequate, it demands the fitness of a Special Forces commando that Purja was, and the kind of mental drive and focus that only someone like him could command.
Purja lives the Gurkha credo of ‘better to die than to live a coward’. He is out to prove everyone wrong, all those who ridiculed his idea, refused to fund his climbs because they said it was impossible. Which is why Purja called his mission ‘Project Possible’. Quitting is not in Purja’s blood, and more than anything else, his book is a chronicle of how this intrepid soldier-climber overcame every obstacle on his path.
These were not just technical challenges on the mountains, but seemingly insurmountable fundraising, bureaucratic, political, hurdles every step of the way. There is money to be raised, climbing permits to be obtained, jealous and cynical skeptics to deal with.
It almost seems like the summit is just symbolic, Purja’s single-minded pursuit of his goal and never losing sight of his destination is an inspirational message for everyone in every arena of life.
Just like Revol, Purja also has to deal with judgemental social media users moralising from sea level, trolls and people who take extreme pleasure in being just plain cruel and vicious. Revol is accused of leaving her companion to die, while Purja’s purity is questioned for using bottled oxygen. But up there in the high thin air, both are above it all. It is just them and the mountain.
Purja’s book, with its macho tone, pages peppered with obscenities and gung-ho accounts of alcohol and partying, can put some readers off. But it is probably an accurate reflection of his persona. What could be seen as self-promotion is also self-discipline – Purja’s credo of leading by example, of trailblazing.
Besides Nanga Parbat, Purja very nearly comes to grief on Kangchenjunga, Annapurna, K2 and the Gasherbrums, showing us why this kind of climbing is so dangerous. Despite this, he abides by the strict military code of not leaving comrades on the battlefield. The end of the book has Purja’s ‘8 commandments’ on ethical climbing that could be applicable in every other sphere of life.
On Annapurna, after summiting the first of his 14 peaks, he helps bring down a Malaysian climber despite being ‘knackered’. He rescues an Indian woman on Everest, and two more Indian climbers on Kangchenjunga. All of them were too far gone to make it, but the important thing is that Nimsdai did not leave them to die on the mountain.
In fact, on the mountain Nimsdai Purja behaves more like a commando than a climber. His ‘ascents’ are ‘attacks’, it is either ‘death or glory’, he has to make Broadpeak ‘bomb-proof’, ‘nailing the peak’ is like clearing a minefield. After climbing Everest and rescuing a stranded climber, Nimsdai returned to his unit in Afghanistan, and writes:
‘I was back scrapping with the military where I kicked in doors and took down bad dudes, counting off the days until it was time to climb another mountain.’
He witnesses the crowds on Everest in May 2019, and his photograph of the ‘traffic jam’ at the South Summit goes viral, but he agrees with Karma Tenzing who argued in this paper against capping climbers on Everest, and instead vetting them for experience. With each climb, Nimsdai Purja see signs of climate change on the glaciers and slopes and uses his growing profile to become an activist to raise awareness about the melting mountains.
Purja wonders if his international fame would have been greater if he had not been from Nepal. He writes:
‘It’s highly likely that if I’d been a climber from America, Great Britain or France, then every outlet in the world have noticed the effort. I was also a realist. Those media companies with the biggest global outreach were mainly owned by western investors. The story of a climber from Chitwan and his attempts to scale the world’s tallest mountains in record-breaking time didn’t carry the same impact as a mountaineer working towards a similar goal from New York., Manchester or Paris. Even though I was technically a British citizen, my nationality had positioned me under the radar of almost everyone.’
What’s next for Nimsdai Purja? What lies ‘beyond possible’? At the end of the book, he tries to answer this question. The mountains are there to be climbed, and he wants to pick ‘which ones to take and the style to do them’. Indeed, Nimsdai Purja is taking part in the K2 challenge and to repeat his climb, this time in winter.
In her book, The Art of Freedom, Bernadette McDonald calls Poland’s Voytek Kurtyka the greatest alpinists of all time for the purity of his climbs. Kurtyka was a fierce critic of military-style expeditions to ‘conquer’ the big peaks, he did not consider jumaring up fixed ropes to camps laid out by Sherpas, as climbing.
And he practiced what he preached. For this ascetic climber, getting to the summit was not as important as how one got there. Many of his climbing partners like Alex MacIntyre, Jerzy Kukuczka, were killed on the mountains they were climbing. And now Doug Scott, with whom he attempted Nanga Parbat, has also passed.
For Voytek Kurtyka, as it is with Élisabeth Revol and Nimsdai Purja, the quest is spiritual, a style of climbing in which a mountaineer meets a mountain one-on-one.
Fighting for Life on the Killer Mountain
by Élisabeth Revol
Translated from the original French Vivre by Natalie Berry
One Soldier, Fourteen Peaks – My Life in the Death Zone
by Nimsdai Purja
Hodder & Stroughton / SAFU, 2020
Softcover Nepali Edition: Rs 800
The Life and Climbs of Voytek Kurtyka
by Bernadette McDonald
Rocky Mountain Books, 2017