There are many great mountain ranges across the world, but the indisputable Big Daddy is the Himalaya. Ian Parnell has spent a fair part of the last decade exploring these mountains, from popular iconic favourites through to rarely travelled secret peaks. Here Ian shares his images and thoughts from four contrasting expeditions. For more on Ian’s adventures, check out his blog at http://ianparnellphotography.blogspot.com/
Part 1 - Everest (8848m), Tibet 2005
I’ve chosen to start with Everest as it’s the public face of the Himalaya. The mountain that every non-climber asks when you’re climbing at Stanage if you’re training for. I was lucky enough to get a “free” trip with a filming job in 2005. Now at least I’m able to answer that daft question/taunt!
Trips to Everest are unlike any other expedition (at least that I’ve been on). For a start there is the sheer scale of the logistics; 6 to 8 weeks at base camp with in our case a team of 12 sherpas, 10 climbers, 2 cooks and a Sunday times journalist. To get that show up the road and onto the mountain there’s a whole local industry of porters and higher up yak herders. There is nothing “lightweight” about anyone’s approach to the big E. It’s a style of climbing that is a little alien to me, and it’s the reason I’ve chosen to start with the Everest trip as it puts all my personal expeditions in context.
Everyone attempting Everest by its two most popular routes - the South Col from Nepal and (as we were) the North Ridge from Tibet relies heavily on the high altitude talent and skill of the Sherpas. This shot shows Nima Gombu, Neal Short (one of our guides, not a sherpa but still pretty hands on the heights), Tenzing, and Phurbu Namgyal at the 8300m high camp. Typical days for the sherpas would involve carrying huge loads of up to 20kgs from 6000m through to 7900m and back in a day. In terms of sheer altitude ability, I felt they were running rings around any western climber I’ve seen.
Finally there. The top of the world. Despite the fixed ropes, the broken trail, the sherpa support and the fact I used bottled oxygen from 7900m climbing Everest was still pretty exhausting. I had to help several other climbers who drained themselves so much on the ascent that they collapsed on the way down. We even came across the body of a climber who had died descending the same day we summited, collapsing within meters of his tent. You can tell from this shot that Everest is no longer a wilderness experience. On a personal level, it was the strangest time I’ve spent in the mountains, and it made me realise even more the value of my other, lightweight and lower-key Himalayan visits.
Annapurna III (7555m), Nepal 2003
The sheer length of expeditions and the fact that you often travel for many days on foot creates an immersion in the culture of the country you visit. Nepalese culture is a fascinating mix of old world tradition and contemporary adaptability, but the core Buddhist beliefs of the high Himalayan people still shine through. Here a visiting climber rolls the prayer wheels as they enter the Annapurna Sanctuary.
We choose to attempt a new way up our peak Annapurna III. The South West Ridge had been attempted by many teams including most recently a team of 14 Slovenians. As we were a team of 3 and hoping to climb alpine style as opposed to their fixed rope siege we were a little nervous. The ridge is guarded by a 500m wall of occasionally sound granite but more often than not the line wove in between huge blocks of rotten rock. Here Kenton Cool gets to grip with the cleaner pitches at the start of wall.
Once past the initial rock wall an almost mile long crest of steep snow climbing rose to a crux band of rock at 7000m. American John Varco is here creeping across the “door hinge pitch” so named as each of these great sheaves of rock felt like they might peel away from the main wall. Whilst technically not too bad the altitude made the climbing hard time consuming work. So much so that we finished the difficulties in the dark and unable to find a spot for the tent were forced into an uncomfortable bivi. This was made even more alarming as John spent much of the night coughing up blood.
The following day we only climbed a few hundred meters before we stumbled across a 6 foot hole in the snow slope. Crawling inside we found a huge ice cave. Out of the wind we decided to set the tent up for the day and get ourselves back on kilter, brewing drinks and resting. We dubbed this hidden sanctuary the “Life saver bivi”. The following day we were able to complete our ascent to the summit.
Saf Minal (6911m), India 2004
John Varco and I headed into the edges of the Nanda Devi Sanctuary in 2004. This area is legendary in mountaineering circles not just for India’s highest peak Nanda Devi but also for the extraordinary spire of Changabang that can be seen top left in this shot. Saf Minal is a much less well known sister peak to Changabang and before our attempt had only received a single ascent. We opted for the untouched North Face. This shot is taken on the fourth day of our climb just as the weather window closed trapping us on the face.
We eventually managed to scarp out a sloping 2 foot wide ledge out of the ice and suspend our tent from the rock. Unfortunately the constant spindrift sliding down the face collected behind the tent eventually pushing us off our little ledge and leaving us completely suspended. Shortly after one of the poles broke in the tent. After 36 hours stuck inside and with the storm showing little sign of abating we had to make a decision. Up or Down? We choose up and climbed for 20 hours into the spindrift.
The following day we awoke to find that not only had we made the top of the face the storm had been replaced by perfect blue skies. It felt like some kind of miracle. Leaving our tent pitched on the ridge we were able to amble our way up the final 300 meters to the summit in a gentle unrushed way I’ve rarely had the privilege to experience in the high mountains.
When we set off for our attempt we had left John’s spotting scope with our base camp team. They’d been able to follow our summit day and even see us on top. After an exhausting 2 day descent where we ran out of food we were very surprised to met on the glacier and guided back to camp to be met with this victory cake. The perfect home coming.
Kedar Dome (6830m) India 2006
Kedar Dome lies in the Gangotri, a fantastic range of peaks and home to the birth place of the Ganges, India’s holiest river. Here Tim Emmett (read his blog on planetFear here) gives up on the quiet meditation typical of pilgrims at riverside and responds to the natural power of the water in a manner more fitting with his personality.
One of the bonuses of the Gangotri is the superb boulders to be found surrounding the mountains. Tapovan, the base camp for the area’s most famous peaks Shivling and Meru, has even become a bouldering destination in its own right. A further day on up the glacier was our base camp, much less visited but with equally entertaining challenges amongst the boulders.
The 2000m sweep of the East Face of Kedar Dome has long been known amongst the cognisenti. First a Hungarian and then a Polish team had climbed routes to the top of the rock wall but not completed their routes up committing corniced ground to the summit. Tim and I had dreams of climbing alpine style, new ground all the way to the summit, and all free if possible. At times I doubted our plan but luckily Tim had never been to the Himalaya before, in fact he’d only climbed one alpine route, so where I saw blank rock he saw free climbing potential.
The climbing unfolded as though in a dream, with cracks, holds and tent site appearing just when they needed. This hot shows the final piece in the jig saw; when we found a solitary line of weakness piercing the final 8 pitch headwall. Tim pulled off a blinder near the end of day four managing to onsight the crux pitch, which he likened in difficulty to "climbing Zukator (Tremadoc’s legendary E4) wearing a rucksack with a plastic bag on [his] head".
This photo sums up what I have valued the most about my trips to the Himalaya. It’s about companionship, friendship, about what is possible when friends work together and believe totally in oneanother. On this trip we managed to make the first ascent of one side of a mountain, to the summit, all free and in alpine style and then descend the other side of the mountain and leave nothing behind (except a couple of stuck wires). Since that expedition I’ve become a daddy (Pa Parners as Tim calls me) and so it might be my last trip to the Himalaya. But it’s satisfying to feel that on Kedar Dome, Tim and I achieved our own little bit of Himalayan perfection.
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