Thursday, November 19, 2009

Inside the ice hole

Toma┼ż Humar, an extraordinary mountaineer from Slovenia, died earlier this month while climbing Langtang Lirung in the Himalayas. Although he left behind no published diaries, has a few of his diary extracts. Here is a typical one: ‘I spend the entire day inside the ice hole to acclimatize more - I do not want to take any risk of edema. The wind is really strong reaching speeds greater than 100 km/h.’

Humar was born in Ljubljana, then part of Yugoslavia, in 1969, and started to climb seriously as a teenager, under the country’s then strict training regime. He was conscripted into the army, and sent to soldier in Kosovo, an experience he hated. He married Sergeja Jersin in 1991, and they had two children before separating. In the mid-1990s, he began a series of climbs in the Himalayas that would earn him a huge following in Slovenia as well as respect from the international climbing community. In 1999, for example, he made a now-famous solo ascent of the south wall of Dhaulagiri, considered one of the deadliest routes in the Himalayas.

However, Humar’s methods were considered hotheaded and even dangerous by some. During a solo attempt to climb Nanga Parbat in 2005, he misjudged the conditions and became trapped by avalanches and melting snow at an altitude of nearly 6,000 meters. After six days in a snow cave - much of it followed on the internet thanks to his webcam equipment - he was rescued by an heroic Pakistani army helicopter crew.

All in all, Humar completed over 1,500 ascents, Wikipedia says, and won a number of mountaineering and other awards, including the Piolet d’Or in 1996 for a climb on Ama Dablam in eastern Nepal. The Guardian, The Independant, and UK Climbing all have obituaries.

But thanks to for nine days of Humar’s diary while climbing the South Face of Annapurna in October 2007. Here are the first five of those days.

24 October 2007
‘I start out with my friend Jagat Limbu. We cross the glacier and weave our way through mixed rock and ice pillars under the main wall at 5800m. We stage our first bivy on a small ice platform at 5800 meters.’

25 October 2007
‘We remain in our bivy at 5800 meters all day due to strong winds and stomach problems. Moreover, I did not feel acclimatized. I had only climbed Tharpu Chuli (5690 m) as a warm-up peak and did not sleep higher than 5300 meters. These are insufficient altitudes to adequately acclimate for an 8000 meter peak.’

26 October 2007
‘I start climbing at 6am - no helmet, no rope, no harness - just bivy gear, some food and gas. I leave everything else with Jagat who would face the descent alone in case I did not come back. At 3pm, I start digging a hole in the ice at 7200 meters. This is my second bivy.’

27 October 2007
‘I spend the entire day inside the ice hole to acclimatize more - I do not want to take any risk of edema. The wind is really strong reaching speeds greater than 100 km/h.’

28 October 2007
The alarm goes off at 6am. I have not slept. I have just been waiting and waiting for a good moment to leave. The sky is clear. The wind is strong . . . and cold . . . I climb very light carrying just 2 liters of juice which freeze within the first hour. After two hours, I make it to the East Ridge at 7500 meters where Loretan and Joss passed in 1984. Despite very strong winds, I continue towards the East Summit. By 10am, I have crossed most of the East ridge and the summit feels close at hand. With each passing hour, the wind grows stronger. As I climb higher, ice and snow falls increase in intensity and frequency and the risk of avalanche becomes more extreme. I am standing on the East Summit at 8047 meters before 3pm. I trust God, I pray, I feel safe! Even if the weather is good I would never dare to continue to the main summit at 8091 m as God gave me the possibility to reach it already once in 1995. It was my first 8000 m, this is the only answer I have to why I chose Annapurna, it’s 20 years since alpinism became ‘my way of life’. I immediately begin my descent. The shadow of the snow cornice is growing long. I call Jagat to tell him that I am on my way back. He is really happy to hear from me. The last contact we had was at 10:00am and since then he has been praying for me. As night closes in, I reach the beginning of the East Ridge. I am very tired and it has been a long time since I have been able to eat or drink. It is completely dark and I cannot see any of my tracks. I am lost, but in my soul I know that God is with me. My headlamp is not working due to low temperatures and I have to wait in the cold and dark for the moon to rise before continuing. I reach my bivy at 7200 meters at 8:25pm. I am totally exhausted. I send this sms: ‘Blessed, in bivac. New route up to 7500m +, then my the longest journey to myself. Annapurna east 8000m + and back after 14 hours in earth time. Everything was o.k., but if is this wind 60 km/h then i drive my car slowly.’ I enter meditation and I prepare a cup of tea as I wait for dawn to come.’

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