Ultra-Alpinism: 50 Hour Push on Pangbuk Ri
At 10 p.m. November 10th, 18 hours into their attempt at the first ascent of Nepal’s 6,625-meter Pangbuk Ri, Chad Kellogg and David Gottlieb faced a dead end. They had anticipated a long single push of ice, rock, snow and mixed climbing up the south face to get to the peak’s 21,735-foot summit. From the base of the south face, they had picked out a chockstone they called “The 8 Ball” in one of the runnels that led to the summit ridge, and if they got above the 8 Ball, the route would go. After 18 hours of climbing – including an early-morning bombardment of rocks from above, one of which cracked Gottlieb’s helmet – they had yet to see the 8 Ball.
At the dead end at the top of a runnel, Kellogg and Gottlieb set up a rappel, the ends of their 60-meter ropes disappearing into the darkness below. They blindly rapped into what they thought was a large runnel to their left, hoping the ends of ropes reached something.
The rappel put them just above the 8 Ball. The route would go, in six more pitches, putting them atop the summit ridge at 2:30 a.m., 3,500 vertical feet and 22 ½ hours after they had started climbing.
“We took a chance rappelling into this overhanging terrain that we knew we would have an extremely difficult time climbing out of,” Kellogg says. “It was a game of poker – you gotta put in your ante, pay all your bills, and see if you can make the route go.”
As the men huddled into a crevasse at 22,000 feet to wait for daylight, they had 27.5 hours left – The anxiety of whether the line would go was over, but the battle to survive the climb had just begun. The sun would come up twice before they could lie down in a tent again and rest.
What followed put the Pangbuk Ri climb into the category of what Kellogg calls “Ultra-alpinism”: “When you're pushing over 36 hours, that’s where the word ‘ultra’ gets inserted,” Kellogg says. “The mega-push. Multiple days without sleep. You’re combining rock, ice, altitude, endurance, and you're eliminating your standard camps, you’re eliminating oxygen. And pushing technical difficulty.”
After summiting at 8:30 a.m. November 11th, Kellogg and Gottlieb chose to descend via the West face, downclimbing and rappelling through seracs well into the next night, losing the full moon they had utilized the previous night, hidden behind the mountain for most of the night. Ropes got stuck. Headlamp batteries died, and they turned their lights off except when they put in rap anchors. For the overhanging rappels, Kellogg put in two v-threads for peace of mind, but otherwise left as little gear as possible. His calves began to lock up in the aftermath of their summit day, 3,500 feet of frontpointing. Neither of the climbers could spend any time climbing ice in the summer and early fall months leading up to the November climb – making Pangbuk Ri the “season opener for ice climbing” for both of them.
After 14 v-thread rappels and 14 hours of descending, Kellogg and Gottlieb were on top of the snow cone at the base of the face, both hallucinating. They began the 10-mile walk down talus-covered glacier back to their base camp. At hour 45, they ditched their packs under a boulder, packing only a few bars, cameras and headlamps.
“A 50-hour push in the Himalaya isn’t unheard of, but it hasn’t been done a lot,” Kellogg says. “A few teams have done it, but they usually bring some sort of bivouac gear with them. We just went all in, and brought clothes and a stove, and that was it. We knew the route was technical enough that we couldn’t do it with 40-pound packs. We needed 20-pound packs.”
At 5:58 a.m. Nov. 12th, 50 hours after they had started climbing on Nov. 10th, Kellogg and Gottlieb reached the cook tent at their base camp. Dowa, their cook – who had seen headlamps near the summit on Nov. 10th, had been ready for their arrival since the previous day – whipped up a batch of Dal Bhat for breakfast.
AS HUMAN-POWERED AS HUMANLY POSSIBLE
Kellogg and Gottlieb elected to walk into and walk out of their climb, an additional 50 miles and 20,000 feet of elevation gain on the way out, walking in via the Rolwaling Valley and out the Jiri Valley instead of taking a flight into the airport in Lukla – the standard approach for Everest and many other climbs.
The trek into and out of their climb was part of their effort to maximize their adventure and minimize the trace they left. In 14 rappels, they left only four pitons, two stoppers and one ice screw, and threaded their 8mm line through most of the v-threads they used to rappel. They used rechargeable batteries for all their electronics and solar panels to charge the batteries. Their food was locally made – no jars, minimal packaging. During the entire three week-expedition, the three men produced only five pounds of garbage.