THE MOUNTAIN OF STORMS
Ascent of Dhaulagiri 1994
by Rich Henke
The idea of climbing Dhaulagiri began in the Fall of 1992 when
Peter Green and I discussed organizing a climb of a big interesting
peak. Dhaulagiri, which at 26,795 feet is the sixth highest mountain
in the world, is located in Nepal. We decided upon Dhaulagiri for
several reasons. It was one of the 14 peaks in the world that is
over 8,000 meters high, the Northeast Ridge has a relatively non-technical
route which was within our capabilities, and the administrative
problems of climbing Dhaulagiri were manageable. My experience in
leading treks in Nepal had allowed me to develop personal contacts
in Kathmandu who were reliable, could help to obtain the necessary
permits, and could work the bureaucratic issues.
The climb was very successful in that 4 of our 8 members summited
on October 3rd and 4th while 2 more got to within 300 feet of the
summit on October 9th before turning back due to high winds. Credit
for this success is due to our team members having common objectives
and a consistent philosophy which is described in more detail below.
Good weather was also a key factor.
The total cost of climbing Dhaulagiri averaged about $3900 per
person including airfare and the peak fee of $8000. This included
common gear but not personal equipment. Costs for personal equipment
varied greatly among the members depending upon the amount of high
altitude gear they already owned. Tents were provided by individuals
and taken home again after the climb.
ITINERARY AND CAMPS
Figure 1 is a photograph of the mountain taken from the north
which shows the Northeast Ridge very clearly. Figure 2 shows the
approximate locations of Base Camp plus the 4 additional camps we
set up. The following is a list of the key events on the mountain.
||Depart Los Angeles for Kathmandu
||Bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara
||Begin trek to Base Camp
||Cross Dampas Pass (17,100 ft.)
||Cross French Col (17,600 ft.)
||Arrive Base Camp (15,500 ft.)
||Establish Camp 1 (18,600 ft.)
||Establish Camp 2 (22,000 ft.)
||Establish Camp 3 (23,300 ft.)
||Establish Camp 4 (24,000 ft.)
||Summit (Henke, Taylor)
||Summit (Johnson, R. Green)
||Last person leaves Base Camp
||Most people fly home
Most of the group spent 58 days away from the USA. It took 10 days
to trek to Base Camp. The first successful summit bid occurred 23
TEAM PHILOSOPHY AND PLANNING
Our initial group consisted of 6 people: Peter and Rob Green,
Dave Custer, Alois Smrz, Miguel Carmona and myself. We had periodic
meetings as early as December 1992 to discuss climbing objectives
and to determine the equipment that would be required for the climb.
A team philosophy was developed that proved to be very successful.
We wanted the team members to consist of friends who would enjoy
spending extended time together in addition to being capable mountaineers.
Professional climbers or hotshots, who might have more at stake
in reaching the summit than a group of amateurs, were not sought
out. Our objective was to have a good time in the mountains with
a group of friends, and if weather and conditions were favorable,
we hoped to reach the summit. We wanted a team of 8-10 people; our
final team was 8. Miguel had to drop out because of back problems.
Brian Johnson (a doctor), Rick Taylor, and Ken Brameld were added.
In addition, Lorraine Green (Peter's wife) trekked in to Base Camp
with us and remained for the entire climb.
Another key feature of the climbing approach was that we would
use minimal equipment but would stop short of an alpine style climb.
Pure alpine style has climbers moving up a mountain one time, carrying
everything needed for a successful climb. Camps are set up and vacated
completely as the climbers move up from camp to camp. This type
of climbing is not practical for 8,000 meter peaks because climbers
do not have sufficient time to acclimatize to the high altitudes
involved. High altitude alpine climbs have been successful only
when climbers have had time to acclimatize on other high peaks immediately
before starting their ascent. Our plan was to set up several camps
on the mountain and stock these camps with tents, sleeping bags,
food, and fuel as we made several trips from Base Camp.
Our gear was organized so that parties of 2 people could be self-sufficient
and not dependent upon others for supplies or equipment. This method
of climbing is discussed in detail in an article by Alan Rouse called
'Lightweight Expeditions'. The pairing up of people changed during
the climb depending upon health, energy, and the amount of rest
required by each person. There was no central direction from either
the expedition leader (myself) or the climbing leader (Peter Green).
My role was an administrative one; to handle the permits and bureaucratic
processes and to get the team to Base Camp with proper support.
Peter's role as climbing leader was to resolve any disputes or climbing
issues that might arise - a job which was never required.
We spent considerable time planning for the technical portions
of the climb. Although we used porters and ponies to get to Base
Camp, we were on our own above that point. We did not use climbing
Sherpas who typically carry most of the gear up a mountain and sometimes
fix ropes over the difficult technical sections. Although our route,
the Northeast Ridge, was relatively non-technical as compared to
other 8,000 meter peaks, it did require climbing a difficult icefall
which began less than an hour from Base Camp. Also, the steepness
of the terrain above Camp 2 at about 22,000 feet was about 45°
and depending upon the conditions, could require ropes or belayed
climbing. Finally, the narrow ridge just below the summit was reported
to be very exposed.
We took sufficient gear to be able to handle those problems. We
knew that the Northeast Ridge was a popular route and that several
other expeditions would be on the mountain simultaneously. Hence,
there was a good probability that much of the difficult sections
would have fixed ropes in place. Indeed, this turned out to be the
case, which allowed us to leave much of our rope and technical gear
in Base Camp.
The total amount of equipment that we carried above Base Camp
was small by expedition standards. It consisted of about 80 pounds
per person. This included tents, sleeping bags and pads, clothing,
food, stoves, fuel, and climbing equipment. Our initial assumption
was that we could set up and stock our high camps on the mountain
in 3 trips from Base Camp. This indeed turned out to be true. The
people who successfully summited climbed above Base Camp a total
of 4 times but carried an almost empty pack on the final trip to
the summit. We used Sierra Design Stretch Dome tents at Camp 1 and
Camp 2, a Stevenson 3-person tent at Camp 2, and 2-person Bibler
and Integral Design Tents at Camps 3 and 4. Several 'hanging bluet
stoves' were placed at each camp. Most of the climbers had Feathered
Friends sleeping bags or their equivalent, one-piece Gore-tex suits,
one-piece down suits and Everest One Sport boots. We spared no expense
for personal equipment. As one climber said at one of our planning
meetings when discussing a $400 pair of boots, "that is about
$40 per toe!" It seemed a reasonable expense. We carried 4
small radios, 300 wands and an enormous amount of chocolate.
THE APPROACH TO BASE CAMP
Upon arrival in Kathmandu, my time was filled with endless paperwork
and preparations. Our $8000 peak fee had been sent to Nepal 10 months
earlier, but we still did not have our expedition permit in hand.
By the third day in Kathmandu, everything was in order and we left
by bus for the 8 hour drive to Pokhara, Nepal's second largest city.
The following day we drove to Baglung at the end of the road and
The approach to Base Camp at 15,500 feet was similar to self-contained
full service treks which I had organized numerous times in the past.
Chheduk Man Lama was our Nepali Sirdar who I had worked with since
1983. He supervised a cooking crew, porters, and ponies who carried
all gear, prepared all meals and set up camps. Part of this support
crew remained in Base Camp where they provided us with unlimited
supplies of good food such as pasta, potatoes, vegetables, eggs,
and apple pie. We were impressed at the amazing cooking feats performed
in such a basic environment.
We trekked north along the Kali Gandaki staying in tea houses,
(small Nepali inns), along the way. By some estimates this is the
deepest gorge in the world. It is flanked by Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri
which are about 16 miles apart. At a point beneath a line connecting
the 2 peaks, the gorge is almost 3 miles deep. Our approach hike
occurred during the summer monsoon and we expected leaches and lots
of rain. We saw no leaches, had only a little rain, and enjoyed
the trek immensely. We started walking with a support staff of about
15 people, sending most of our gear by plane to Jomsom which we
would reach in 6 days. In Jomsom, ponies supplemented our porters
for the long climb over Dampas Pass (17,100 ft.) and French Col
(17,600 ft.). Since there were no tea houses here, we relied on
our Nepali staff for food and camps. We descended to Base Camp at
15,600 ft. on September 11, ten days after we started walking.
Base Camp was easily recognizable; 4 other expeditions were already
there camped on the glacial moraine and were using all the flat
areas. We had to move rocks and hack out flat platforms from the
ice below to pitch our tents. Of prime importance was our cooking
and dining tents where we spent much of our time.
All together, we took 3,300 pounds to Base Camp, the majority being
food, tents, and gear which would go no higher. Of this total weight,
about 1,300 pounds were brought by air from the USA. We paid no
overweight charges. Airline regulations allow each person to check
two 70 pound bags plus take aboard a 50 pound carry-on.
Once in Base Camp, we organized our gear and investigated the
route through the icefall. Expeditions that had arrived earlier
had fixed the route, but the initial stretch looked difficult and
dangerous. A fixed rope extended for 300 feet on a very steep slope
with lots of loose rock and dirt and was very exposed to rockfall
from above. Closer inspection showed that it was not as steep as
it appeared and that rockfall was infrequent. Nevertheless, it was
my least favorite part of the climb.
The fixed ropes in the icefall were necessary and were used extensively
during every trip from Base Camp to Camp 1. When required, we helped
to maintain these ropes since the ice screws to which they are attached
often melt out and need to be replaced. The icefall was constantly
changing which often necessitated moving the fixed ropes. We found
fixed ropes higher on the mountain which we clipped into, just because
they were available. However, given the conditions encountered,
we could have climbed almost all of the mountain above the icefall
without fixed ropes, with just a few short exceptions.
Over the next several weeks, a continuing pattern emerged. In groups
of 2, we determined how much weight to carry, how high to go, and
when we needed to return to Base Camp for good food and rest. Above
Base Camp, each person was responsible for his own food. Each camp
was equipped with hanging stoves and pot sets that provided unlimited
hot water. Personal preference dictated the food selection. But
since we all knew how difficult it was to get enough calories at
altitude, the food above Base Camp consisted of things that people
thought they could eat. It does no good to take wholesome food and
not be able to eat it. It is better to take cookies, candy, poptarts,
or whatever is palatable at altitude.
We experienced various illnesses, which is typical on a Himalayan
climb. These ranged from minor colds and diarrhea to more severe
coughs and stomach problems. How a person was feeling determined
how many rest days were needed at Base Camp, where it was easier
to recover from illness and to maintain body weight.
Two days after arriving at Base Camp, 5 of us climbed for 12 long
hours with much too heavy packs, and established Camp 1 at 18,600
feet. Here we pitched 4 large tents in a flat, safe and secure camp.
Seven days later, on our second trip up the mountain, Rick Taylor
and I established Camp 2 at 22,000 feet on a small flat spot below
a vertical ice wall. Five days after that, on our third trip above
Base Camp, Rick and I established Camp 3 at 23,300 feet. In retrospect,
this location was a mistake, since a much better camp existed 700
feet higher, which was established 3 days later by Dave Custer.
Camp 3 was used sparingly and the 2 successful summit bids bypassed
it completely. We were very pleased with our excellent progress.
This was primarily due to the near-perfect weather conditions we
had encountered. Dhaulagiri has been called the "Mountain of
Storms" and previous climbers have often failed to summit due
to difficulties with the weather.
FIRST SUCCESSFUL SUMMIT
On September 30th, Rick Taylor and I left Base Camp and arrived
in Camp 1 six hours later. This was our fourth excursion from Base
Camp. Lighter loads, better acclimatization, and familiarization
with the route had reduced the time required to reach Camp 1 by
a factor of 2. During the next 2 days, we climbed to Camp 2 and
then to Camp 4. The weather remained excellent. On October 3rd,
we left our small tent at 3 a.m. and started for the summit using
the light from our lithium headlamps. Snow conditions on the mountain
were such that we were able to traverse upward on a moderate snow
slope that led directly to a steep couloir just below the summit.
People with whom we talked from previous expeditions had been forced
to stay on the ridge which was more technical and exposed. We climbed
unroped, each with a single ice axe and light pack. In fact, climbing
ropes were only used in a few cases, lower on the mountain early
during the climb. We wore all of our clothes; I wore a down suit
covered by a one-piece Gore-tex shell. Except for the altitude,
the climbing was routine. At these altitudes, any exertion leaves
one gasping for breath. I tried to maintain a pace where I took
only 2 or 3 breaths per step, but even this pace required frequent
rest breaks. Nevertheless, the weather held and we inched our way
upward. At about 12:30 p.m. we stood on the summit, undoubtedly
the highest people in a world of 5 billion people. What did we do
on the summit? We took hurried photos, and started down. Our major
concern was for a safe descent, and not to bask in the sunshine.
The snow couloir at the top had a fixed rope which was very useful
on the descent.
We arrived back at Camp 4 before dark, where we spent several hours
melting snow to rehydrate and eat. We were cold and shaky but by
the time we were ready to sleep we were both feeling fine. Meanwhile,
Bryan and Rob were in a Bibler Tent slightly below us, but we were
too tired to visit or even to yell "we made it". We learned
later that they knew we had returned because of all the snow and
ice that we kicked down on their tent. They had left Base Camp one
day after us and would attempt to summit the following day.
We started our descent the following morning at about 10:30 a.m.
Before leaving, we contacted Base Camp via radio, having failed
to connect with them the previous evening. A section of fixed rope
between Camp 4 and Camp 3 was very useful. Without the rope we would
have had to go down very cautiously facing in to the mountain. We
bypassed Camp 3 again and stopped at Camp 2 for much needed rest.
Rick arrived well before me; he was quicker and stronger in the
descent, just as he had been on Summit Day. We took down 1 of the
2 large tents at Camp 2 and continued our descent to Camp 1.
We had some snowfall and very poor visibility in the afternoon,
and while this caused us some minor problems in route finding, we
were more concerned for our friends on their summit bid. The descent
to Camp 1 seemed to take forever, and the poor visibility made it
very difficult to see the wands marking the way. Rick was very tired,
and for a change, I led the way down. We reached Camp 1 two hours
after dark, both exhausted. We did find enough energy to eat and
drink however, since we knew the following day would be another
One of the problems with not having climbing Sherpa support is
that we had to take our gear back down in addition to carrying it
up. Except for food and fuel, what we had carried up in 4 trips
had to be carried back down in 1. The next day heavy packs were
a certainty and we were exhausted from the previous 2 days. Rick
had a somewhat bad night. You read about people hallucinating at
altitude. We were back down to 18,600 feet but nevertheless Rick
had some strange observations during the night. He was sure that
the people from an Italian team in the adjacent tents were making
love; he could hear them. Yes, there had been some Italians on the
mountain. But they had departed a week earlier! Altitude does strange
things. By morning, Rick and I were feeling fine but it took us
forever to pack and start our descent. We packed all of our personal
gear plus some community gear which would not be needed by the rest
of the group. We started down carrying 45 pound packs. It took me
6 hours to reach Base Camp where Lorraine and our support team were
waiting. Food and rest never felt so good.
SECOND SUCCESSFUL SUMMIT
Rob and Bryan left Camp 4 on their summit bid at 2:30 a.m. on
October 4th. Fresh snow impeded their progress but they reached
the summit by 2:30 p.m. However, the same storm that caused Rick
and I a problem between Camp 2 and Camp 1 caused even more problems
above 25,000 feet. Visibility deteriorated to a point where they
risked walking off the cliff bands above Camp 4 since they could
not see the wands marking the descent route. They had to make a
critical decision of whether to risk falling off a cliff or spending
the night in a storm at such a high altitude. They dug a depression
in the snow and waited out the night. Spending a night out at 25,000
feet is a serious proposition. Both Bryan and Rob were wearing heavy
Feathered Friends Down suits which was a key factor in their surviving
the night. However, Rob's feet became cold. During the night, he
kept them warm by putting them against Bryan's stomach under layers
of down. However, putting on his cold snow filled boots in the morning
did not help the situation. In the morning, visibility improved
enough for them to reach Camp 4 where they spent the rest of the
day rewarming Rob's feet. The following day they slowly descended
to Camp 2 where they met Ken who had gone up the mountain to help.
It took 2 more days to reach Base Camp with Peter assisting them
through the icefall. Imagine how Rob felt during the 5 day descent
when during the entire time he believed that he might lose some
of his toes. Rob said later that if he had to get frostbite at all,
it was good to be with Doctor Bryan. His good care kept Rob's toes
from freezing, which was the key factor in not losing them. During
this descent, the people at Base Camp were well aware of what was
going on through daily radio contact. We sent a runner to Jomsom
to request a helicopter rescue which arrived on the morning of October
9th, the day after Rob and Bryan returned to Base Camp. Rob, Lorraine,
and I flew to Kathmandu where Rob immediately went to see a doctor
well versed in frostbite. His diagnosis was that Rob would not lose
his toes, which luckily has turned out to be the case. Rob has become
quite a specimen for our Southern California doctors who rarely
get to experience a frostbite case.
POST SUMMIT PERIOD
On the day that the helicopter evacuation occurred, Ken and Dave
were making a summit bid. As the 3 of us left on the helicopter,
we could see the top of the mountain from Base Camp, and from the
way snow plumes were blowing off the top, we estimated that the
wind speed was 100 miles per hour. Dave and Ken made it to the foot
of the high snow couloir but had to turn back only 300 feet from
the summit. The weather had definitely changed for the worse. The
good weather of late September and early October had given way to
the cold winds of the approaching winter. There were no other successful
summit bids from any of the expeditions after October 9th. Alois
had been at Camp 3 during the storm. The 3 of them cleared the upper
camps as they retreated down the mountain. Camp 1 was also vacated
and with help from some of the climbing Sherpas from the French
expedition, nothing of value was lost. We gave our extra food to
a Belgium expedition that was waiting out the storm. We vacated
Base Camp several days later and the remainder of the team began
the hike out on October 15th to return to Kathmandu.
With the exception of Rob and Bryan's forced bivouac, the climb
went very well and we met our objectives. The weather favored the
4 of us who pushed high early. This was purely chance as it is difficult
to predict weather on Dhaulagiri. If health had allowed the other
4 climbers to attempt to summit earlier, all could have made it.
We were all thankful that we had a safe expedition as well as a
successful one. A Swiss climber and a Ukrainian climber were not
so fortunate. They died on Dhaulagiri while we were there.
For me, this was my first and last 8,000 meter peak. I made the
decision a year before the climb that this would be my last really
big mountain. But it feels great to have reached the summit on the
most ambitious climb of my life.