Report by Mark Richey (unedited)
September 23, 2001
Barbarossa, First Ascent of peak 6218 (AKA Argan Eiger) by its North Face
From the day we arrived in BC below the Phunangma glacier, Mark Wilford and I were at once captivated by the obvious and direct line on peak 6218's north face. We estimated the wall to be about 4000' high and a steep mix of rock and ice. The late afternoon sun delineated a sharp central rib which bisected the face and finished exactly at the summit. The line looked irresistible!
On the 8th of Sept. we crossed the Phunangma and set camp at the base of the face beneath a huge boulder. Conditions were anything but ideal. The entire face was plastered with fresh snow and the weather still appeared unstable. In addition, we had spent only 6 days between 15,000 and 17,000 ft. so our acclimatization was marginal. Nonetheless, we felt better conditions were unlikely given how late in the season it was and objectively the climb looked reasonable safe. We decided to give it a go.
From Sept. 9th to the 12th Mark and I climbed over 20, 60 meter pitches of technical rock and ice on the face. All rock climbing was done with crampons in full winter conditions. A fair amount of direct aid was employed including 2 pendulums. We sack hauled on most of the pitches and the second jumared with a heavy pack. Several sections of frighteningly loose, stacked blocks had to be negotiated. At one point, a television sized rock, sent loose by hand pressure, nearly severed the lead rope. The ice climbing was mainly confined to the initial four pitches of 45 degree snow and ice and then the final three pitches of water ice up to 70 degrees and including the final overhanging cornice. We had taken only three ice screws, anticipating neve on the summit ice fields. We had snow fall on all days except the 11th and toped out in a full blizzard which dumped nearly a foot of snow. We made three bivouacs on the face, the first two were excellent platforms and we were able to erect our small tent. Our final open bivouac on the face was a narrow ledge chopped into a 50 degree ice slope. Heavy spindrift during the night kept us from much sleep. To make matters worse at night I was plagued with a nearly debilitating cough. Though I assured Mark otherwise, secretly I feared altitude sickness. Fortunately by morning it disappeared. We also spent one night just below the summit.
We reached the actual summit on September 13th after the storm. Clearing skies allowed us superb views of the surrounding mountains and ranges, all unclimbed and unexplored except for the two peaks our Indian friends had just summited. There is phenomenal potential here for alpine style climbing on peaks up to 6800 meters. Due to the heavy snow fall our original plans of descent down the North East ridge to the Phunangma glacier seemed excessively dangerous. Instead, we opted for a descent down the South face of the mountain to a glacier system on the opposite side of the range. Our hopes were that this drainage would eventually link up to the Arganglas valley and with a little luck, a leisurely walk would see us back in base camp in one to two days.
Nothing could have been further from the truth. In fact, the gentle disarming glacier we saw below, ultimately funneled its way down into a steep and terrifying gorge leading all the way to the Nubra valley. By the time we realized this, we were too exhausted to retrace our path, already day 7 on 5 days of food. Unwittingly, we committed ourselves to the canyon. At first, our downward progress was easy, jumping the turbulent stream from side to side to avoid the canyon walls. Soon however, we found ourselves reppelling directly through waterfalls and down narrow water filled channels. At one point Mark had to drop his pack half way down a rappel into a deep pool for fear of being drowned.
Finally, after ten hours of brutal descent, we stood atop a huge water fall longer than our rope. Beyond, the smooth canyon walls disappeared out of sight. Unwilling to make this final commitment, we searched for an escape. One side of the canyon presented a slight weakness. Mark led up a wall of huge blocks literally cemented in place with mud. As Mark put it "It was the most frightening pitch I have ever climbed" Two more vertical pitches of rock and 500 ft of scrambling led us finally to the Canyon rim and our 7th night out.
The following morning, we descended to the Nubra valley where we met a very relieved porter sent down to look for us by Harish and Chris. That day our companions were ready to send out the search Helicopter. Back at ABC, they had built a lovely temple and prayed for our safety. I am sure those prayers helped see us through our endeavor.
We named the climb Barbarossa after the world war II German/Russian conflict and the book we had been reading in base camp.
All dispatches and photos courtesy of www.bonington.com
Report by Mark Richey (unedited)