The Southern California Expedition to Dhaulagiri '94
by Peter & Robert Green
Thanks to the affordability of travel in Nepal, wholesale prices from several companies, and a willingness to put our irregular lives aside, eight friends set off in late August to try to climb one of the tallest mountains on earth. We sought neither fame, glory, nor riches, only fun and fine scenery. Though none of us had climbed an 8000m peak before, our backgrounds included broad experience in the Andes, Alaska, and Asia. The team evolved over the 2 years of planning, and remained essentially based in Southern California with 4 members (Rich Henke, Alois Smrz, Peter Green and Miguel Carmona) at the core. Miguel ended up not going due to his back.
Our pleasantly brief stay in Kathmandu and wonderful trek up the Kali Gandaki river valley made the trip a success from the start. The crux of the approach turned out to be finding pasture for the ponies. This required us to go over Dhampus Pass (17,000') a day earlier than intended, and gave altitude trouble to some of our porters. Our rented Gamow Bag (funded by a donation from the SCMA) was never used but we were grateful to have it. Porters have died on treks before, and another did this same season on the Annapurna loop needlessly from altitude. Serious dehydration is often the key contributing factor.
The northeast ridge of Dhaulagiri is a relatively straight-forward and technically easy route, with the worst stretch being the icefall between base camp at 15,500' and the smoother glacier above 17,000'. The Polish leader of the international expedition that was ahead of us warned that the steep section with the first fixed ropes was ugly, then traversing under the rock face (called "The Eiger") was ugly, and then getting out onto the middle of the glacier was ugly. Actually, we found the loose rock hideous and unsightly, the objectively dangerous traverse to be repulsive and unaesthetic, and the shear zone of creaking ice both unbecoming and unattractive.
The last monsoon storm quit on September 19th, and the 20th was our first day of entirely clear weather. Thus began the fall climbing season. About a week later, temperatures (both overnight lows and daytime highs) began to drop noticeably and winter winds began to blow on October 1st. By the 9th, they were very fierce every day. Thus ended the (brief) autumn.
Rich and Rick Taylor made the summit on October 3rd. Though they were out of view in cloud for most of the afternoon, those in base camp spotted them returning to camp 4 just before dark. This was quite a relief since they did not manage to get the radio working until the next morning. They went well into the evening making it down to camp 1 the next day. Due to a dropped mitten, Rich got a little frostbite to the fingertips on one hand; Rick escaped with only a case of bronchitis.
On the 3rd Bryan Johnson and Rob climbed from camp 2 to camp 4 arriving in the early afternoon. They set up Bryan's Bibler tent, crawled in and began melting snow. It was difficult to keep any food down that evening. Around 6pm their tent was hit by numerous ice balls kicked loose by Rick and Rich returning from their successful trip to the summit. They slept poorly in the tiny tent and arose at 1 am to prepare for their attempt for the summit. At 2:30am they left the marginal warmth of the tent for the cold and windy darkness. Slowly, they worked their way up the ridge and between the rock cliffs out onto the upper snow face of Dhaulagiri in the dark. They were very cold and relieved when the sun hit around 8am. For the next 6 hours they climbed and traversed the snow face, much of the time through breakable crust. After noon, they were enveloped in clouds with blowing snow and invisible to those watching from base camp through binoculars. Around 2pm they arrived at the base of the summit couloir. After a brief rest they started up the steep snow. For a time, Rob remembers being slowed to a pace of 10 breaths per step up this face. From the top of the couloir they rolled onto the relatively flat summit ridge gasping for breath. From this point the summit was 30 minutes away over one small subpeak. There was no view from the top, only cloud and wind. Pictures were taken and they began to descend around 3:30pm. The weather worsened and blowing snow eliminated all visibility as they approached the complex connection between the snow face and the northeast ridge. By 7pm they realized they were off route and at a dead end in the rock cliffs well above camp 4. They had both slipped and self arrested several times and realized they were not going to find camp 4 that night. At 25,000 ft, they attempted to dig a snow cave but encountered hard ice at 18 inches and settled for a shallow trench.
Around midnight Rob realized he had not felt his toes for many hours and that the cold was creeping up his feet. Bryan opened his down suit, Rob removed his boots and placed his bare feet against his stomach. It was a long night filled with clouds, strong winds and relentless blowing snow. They shivered through the night, but their down suits kept them alive. They waited for the sun to hit at about 7:30am. Rob then put his feet in boots that had been filled with snow through the night. They had no feeling. In two hours they were back at camp 4, watched every step of the way by the worried folks in base camp. They placed Rob's feet in warm water but there was still no feeling. They drank liters of water, ate some food and slept in warm sleeping bags. The next day was spent warming fully before descending in the afternoon to camp 2. Ken Brameld, who had been watching from base camp the day before, had immediately set out to help Rob and Bryan and was at camp 2 when they arrived. He tucked them in their sleeping bags and fed them all the water they could drink and provided hot water bottles for their feet through the night. Thanks to Ken, Bryan and Rob were doing much better the next day and descended rapidly to camp 1 in a blowing whiteout. With their improved strength they spent a safe night at camp 1. They were still too exhausted to eat more than a few bites.
Fortunately, fudge-covered Oreos are over 200 calories apiece! Partway down their descent from camp 1, Rob had an emotional reunion with his brother Peter. Dave Custer had improved the fixed lines and Peter had cut fresh steps to ease their movement through the ice fall to basecamp. Peter took Rob's pack and provided guidance through the ever changing seracs. At basecamp, Rob removed his boots and did not wear shoes again for over a month. The prognosis for the toes is good -- thanks to Bryan's heroics (he had nipped a toe and some fingertips himself!) and their great care to avoid refreezing. Feeling is now returning. On the 9th, Ken and Dave got an early start and reached 8000m by 8am. Unfortunately, it was the first day of utterly howling winds. Dave says he was willing to continue by crawling on his hands and knees, but even that was impossible. Ken's feet, chilled from the episode, are slowly regaining feeling. Alois went solo to Camp 4 the next day. After enduring the jet stream all night, he packed it up and we were on our way home.
As a small, informally organized, almost entirely self-funded, comparatively unknown and completely self-propelled (neither high altitude porters nor bottled oxygen) expedition, we felt very lucky to be simply a group of friends climbing for fun. We returned home largely the same, except for stronger friendships. What grander adventure could there be?