11:11 a.m. EDT Aug 18, 2003
The Everest Snowboard expedition has established Camp One at the North Face. The American climbers have spent time acclimatizing on neighborhood peaks and hope to scale the mountain alpine style, no ropes, sherpas or oxygen and via one of the toughest routes, the Hornbein Couloir.
Of the 15 recognized routes on Everest, the North Face’s Japanese Couloir/Hornbein Couloir is the most direct line to the summit, but not the easiest. Nor the safest.
The Japanese butterfly collector
Since Takashi Ozaki, the Japanese butterfly collector, and Tsuneoh Shigehiro pioneered the first full ascent of the North Face along this route in 1980, only five other people have climbed it, six of the seven survived the descent. Tragically, others have died trying along the way, including a climber from the 1980 Japanese expedition who was caught in an avalanche at 7900m and last year’s tragedy when Marco Siffredi died while attempting his second descent from Everest’s summit via the Hornbein Couloir.
Beginning at the base of the North Face on the Rongbuk Glacier, the Japanese Couloir ascends precariously through an avalanche-prone gully, steepening in some sections to 70 degrees. The angle eases to 40-45 degrees as the route merges directly into the Hornbein Couloir at 26,200 ft., but the climbing difficulty does not.
So it’s up and over for us today…
The smooth, downsloping slabs of the North Face form the walls of either sides of the lower gully in the Hornbein Couloir, but as the route enters the Yellow Band at 27,250 feet, most of the climbing is over rotten, flaky rock – a section that is often more hazardous with loose snow over hard ice and high winds during springtime. The average width of the gully here is 10-12 feet and on a relentless 45 degree angle. Tom Hornbein and William Unsoeld spent four hours of “messy climbing,” ascending only 500 feet by kicking and cutting steps as they zig-zagged their way between the walls of this section when they became the first to scale the couloir in 1963.
Before exiting into the Gray Band, the walls of the Yellow Band converge over the couloir and form a 60 ft. vertical rock wall that requires the most technical climbing of the route. Hornbein and Unsoeld ventured out onto the North Face to see if there was a better way around it, but found that a direct ascent of the wall was the best route.
The Hornbein pioneers initially wanted to climb a new route up Everest's West Ridge and descend via the standard route. But they didn’t like the ridge, and traversed left onto the Tibetan North Face. Hornbein found a couloir that split through bands of rock, heading for the summit. Today the couloir, which has a tricky step to exit, bears his name.
Once over this step the climbers found themselves at the point of no return, as the loose rock wouldn’t allow a descent. They radioed to Base Camp: "So it's up and over for us today ..." They HAD to summit and then make it down to the South Col. Summitting at 6.15 pm, they bivouacked at 8 500m (the South side “emergency camp”), reaching the tents of the South Col the next day. Unsoeld lost nine toes.
Choosing direction at narrow end section
The Hornbein Couloir continues cutting through the downward sloping slabs of the Yellow Band before and empties out onto the more solid rock of the Gray Band at 28,200 feet. At one point, the route closes in to shoulder width, barely allowing a climber to just squeeze through before it widens again.
Above the Couloir, beyond the rock, is a snow slope that leads to the Final Pyramid of the North Face. But the view of the summit here becomes indistinct. Climbers must decide whether to proceed directly up to the summit, traverse right over to the West Ridge, or left to the North East Ridge to ascend. Hornbein and Unsoeld chose the West Ridge, climbing over the worst rock of the route before attaining the ridge. The final approach to the summit proceeds over the snowy ridge which at one point gives way to a rocky knife edge that prompted Hornbein and Unsoeld to remove their crampons and overboots.
Says Lars Kronlund, a Hornbein summiteer (1991), to ExplorersWeb:
-“The Couloir narrows considerably at the end, leading to a 400 m wide, 150 m high 30 degree snow field. I crossed over a little to the left and then went straight for the summit.”
In 1986 a Swiss expedition tried the ridge at the end but had to turn around. Apparently it was pretty narrow and hard to scale without ropes.
Says Lars: “Part of the route, especially the beginning is very steep (70-80 degrees) and will be tough to snowboard (‘unless you use a parachute’).The
mid-section is 40-45 degrees. Hornbein narrows in the end and some parts
are quite jammed.”
Four of the five successful ascents along the full direct route have taken place during the pre-monsoon season in May; all parties using oxygen and ropes.
Lars says: “It was icy and rocky in the spring. The Swiss went during monsoon and had a huge avalanche days after they came down, which took almost the whole face.”
Lars was alone on his summit bid and lost several toes.
During Everest’s 1986 monsoon season, Erhard Loretan and Jean Troillet completed a daring, alpine-style ascent of the route in only 42 hours, without the use of oxygen, ropes or tents. Finding snow conditions perfect along the ascent, Loretan and Troillet glissaded down the entire route to the base of the North Face in less than five hours.
Interestingly enough, they chose to acclimatize only to 6 500m prior to their summit attempt. Medical studies have measured that the human body only acclimatize up to this level, those results however opposed to by many climbers.
Loretan and Troillet climbed mainly at night, opting for speed. They climbed very light, carrying nothing at all above 8000m. Their climbing style was later referred to as “night-nakedness”.
Here come the snowboarders flying
If successful, the American Snowboarding Expedition will become only the second party to achieve this route alpine style.
Of course, conditions on Mount Everest differ greatly throughout the year. The monsoon season typically cloaks Everest in heavy snowfall. At times, the thicker, consolidated snow can allow climbers a better purchase on the route as opposed to the slippery, flaky rock exposed during the high winds of spring. However, conditions might otherwise produce rock-hard, slick ice that prevents a safe passage to the summit. There are no guarantees.
Check out the cool 3D image of the route in the link to your left and say a prayer for our boys. Hopefully, the American Snowboarding Expedition will get the right combination of warmer temperatures, light winds, ideal snow conditions… and luck, in their ascent of the Japanese – Hornbein Couloir. As for snowboarding down – that’s another story that has yet to be told.
Image courtesy of Go-3D