South East « Lagunak » Ridge, AMA DABLAM 6 856m
Khumbu Himal, Nepal
First Alpine Style Ascent
Sébastien Rougegré UIAGM Mountain Guide
Owner of Chamonix Experience
Initially, we wanted to climb Pumori West Face, but after the earthquake hit Nepal we didn’t know what to do. Should we go, not go, or go somewhere else? We took a good look at Kangchenjuga, an area less affected by the earthquake, but the group couldn’t agree on a common objective. After much discussion, we decided to repeat the French Route on the North Face of Kwangde Shar, above Thame Village. Easy access, easy way out and excellent technical, steep mix climbing.
Three days before our international flight to Kathmandu, we heard from some friends on another expedition that our route would probably be unclimbable due to the dry conditions in that part of the Himalayas. The area had experienced nearly three weeks of sunshine and warm weather, drying out our route that should normally be covered with ice and snow. We had to move fast. We decided on a route suggested by Tomas Jakofcic, a route he tried to ‘Alpine Style’ a few years ago with his wife Tina, but bailed due to bad weather. The South East ridge of Ama Dablam, is a superb line between the Normal route and the East ridge. It is a 1250m high line offering varied terrain including rock and mixed climbing, snow, ice flutes, and mushrooms. A perfect meal for us!
Our expedition team consisted of four members, two men and two women. Our group didn’t have a great deal of knowledge around expeditions prior to this. The reason we chose to do this together was to gain experience for more adventurous projects above 7000 meters in the Himalayas.
- Damien Tomasi, UIAGM Mountain Guide at the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix. A strong climber, with an extensive list of hard climbs in the Alps, including Gousseault Demaison NF Grandes Jorasses, NF les Droites, Pilier du Freney, Brown Patey and he’s also climbed in Alaska and Patagonia.
- Fanny Schmutz, UIAGM Mountain Guide at the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, an experienced climber and alpinist who has been to Patagonia and Peru.
- Fleur Fouque, UIAGM Mountain Guide at the Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix, also a very experienced climber and alpinist, who’s been to Peru and Pakistan.
- And myself
The Ama Dablam is a 4–5 day trek from Lukla Airport. After reaching Pangboche in Khumbu valley at 3900 meters, we met up with our friends Helias and Benjamin Guigonnet, who were trying to climb Nuptse South Face. (Ueli Steck and Colin HALEY were also there to try a pilar on Nupste.) From Pangboche we headed East towards our target, Ama Dablam. We decided to acclimatize in the area of our climb to maximize our chances and observe our route and options. From our base camp, we started climbing to the Yak camp, which is the advanced base camp (ABC) of Ama Dablam’s normal route.
Our strategy? Stay in the nice lodge at Nima’s at 4600 meters, acclimatize from there with several rotations up on the normal route while carrying loads of gear to the Yak camp. From camp, we would head East again and walk four hours reaching advanced base camp at 5600m. After a few days of sorting gear and waiting we were ready to go. Unfortunately my three fellow climbers we getting sick during the acclimatization and slowed the process. Damien, Fleur and Fanny are super motivated and by the 18th October and everyone was ready and keen to go. Our weatherman Yann, who is based in Chamonix, relays that we are in for a period of good weather with low winds from the 23rd -26th of October. We left for Advanced Base Camp (ABC) on 23rd.
1st Day of the Climb
It’s 1:00am when the alarm goes off at ABC, after some light breakfast and some warm tea we decide to set off for our adventure. At 2:00am we left our camp. We estimated it would take us about 90 minutes to reach the bottom of our climb, each carrying almost 30kg on our backs. It would actually take much longer as we encountered some grade 4 pitches en route.
We start our real climb at around 5:00am, all agreeing that Fanny and Fleur will lead on the first day. Damien and I will lead the second and third day if we needed it. Fanny starts leading in the dark on easy rock, occasionally ascending some grade 4+ pitches. It was hard climbing with the heavy packs, but we made good progress and it is nice to be climbing after so much trekking!
After several hours of leading on the ridge, Fanny hands over to Fleur who leads the 4 pitch section to follow. The rock is stunning and the conditions are perfect. I am amazed how these two girls are acting so strongly on a remote mountain carrying big bags and climbing at very good pace. They probably carry around 15kgs on their back and they only weight about 55kgs. Proportionally I am thinking this is much harder for them. Damien and I took as much as we could but everyone is carrying heavy packs.
3:00pm: Damien takes the lead on a harder pitch grade 5/V and finishes with two mushroom pitches. This snowy terrain brings us to the bottom of a steep mixed ice and rock section that we called from the bottom the ‘dry tooling section’. We knew from Tomaz back in ’03 , that there should be an ice cave at this altitude which is an ideal place to set a bivy. Unfortunately the face is much dryer now and we didn’t find the cave – it has most likely melted away.
We find a patch of snow where we manage to dig half a platform and we can sort of erect one tent. Fanny and Damien would spend the night there. For Fleur and I, the night is going to be a nightmare. There are no other options other than to rest on unstable rocks on a tiny ledge. To make things more difficult, with darkness falls the snow. Luckily the snowfall was brief leaving only a dusting. The night was long with little rest.
In the morning Damien stepped out of his tent and gathered snow to boil water and sees Fanny sliding, with the tent, down the snow ledge. He only has time to catch her as she was attached to the belay. The tent containing all their gear wasn’t! Tired from the climb, Fanny had forgotten to secure the tent to the mountain the night before. Ouf !!! Not a good wakeup call…
2nd Day of the Climb
Awake at 11:00pm. Awake at 11:30 pm. Awake at 1:00am. I can’t get comfortable and I would rather be climbing than looking at my watch. At 3:00am I can’t take it any more, I call out for Damien and ask him to get ready to start rolling.
It takes us a good hour to pack up our gear with no time to wait for the sun to come up. The morning is super cold and everyone struggles to start climbing. Damien takes the lead, climbing two tricky pitches with some bad rock in the mixed zone. I respect him for taking the first lead that morning. I had such a bad night and I think he saw I had almost no sleep. 80 meters above our bivy I take the lead for a good part of the day. After two scary and awkward traverses on mushrooms and mixed terrain, I belay on bad rock at the bottom of the couloir descending from the final ramp.
This couloir is surrounded by huge mushrooms that we use for anchors and belays with ice screws. Everybody can feel the altitude, and this 50° slope is challenging with 25cms deep snow. I keep putting the track in and reach the bottom of the final ramp at 02:30pm.
Damien and I decide together that I will carry on leading on the first technical pitch of the ramp, a superb 60 meter mixed climb. I quickly lead the first, putting in good anchors and not wasting time so Damien can finish the ramp in daylight.
After that mix pitch, Damien takes the lead for an easy traverse in mixed snow conditions. He finishes with two beautiful pitches traversing on ice flutes, a section of black ice, and the cherry n the cake – a nice 20-meter ice climb with grade 5 for 4 meters of vertical ice. From there a gentle couloir leads to the ridge on the normal route. Fanny and Fleur finish the last vertical pitch in the dark with their headlamps on. They reach the ridge as the wind starts to pick up. It was not an easy day and reaching the shoulder ridge feels good!
We are all exhausted and decide to bivy 50 meters above the huge serac of Ama Dablam. The wind was strong, around 50Kmh and was getting cold. Our boots and clothes were wet, so we needed to get in the shelter of our tent ASAP. Our team dug out two platforms and set up our tents, this time securing both with ice axes. It was time to melt snow in the howling wind and try to recover from the challenging climbing over the past two days. That night we thankfully slept on a flat surface at 6600 meters.
3rd Day of the Climb
We wake up freezing temps and a little lighter wind – around 30km/h. After making some tea we readied ourselves for our last 250 meters of climbing. With Crampons on and one ice axe each, we reached the top of Ama Dablam after 2 hours of hard work. Our bodies were feeling the altitude and we were paying for our efforts over the previous two days.
The summit is such a reward! Amazing views on the South Face of Lhotse and Nuptse, Everest, Makalu, Chamlang. In the distance we can see Kangchenjuga and the North Face of Janu. It is all very emotional and we are lucky to have the summit to ourselves.
The descent on the normal route is long and not particularly nice with all the ropes and mess left by commercial expeditions. It will take us 6 and a half hours to reach our lodge at BC where Nima, the lodge keeper, is waiting for us with a warm meal and a few celebratory drinks!
Sébastien Rougegré UIAGM Mountain Guide
Owner of Chamonix Experience