Horia Colibasanu on “The Toughest Climb of My Life”

Horia Colibasanu on Dhaulagiri's Northwest Ridge.

Horia Colibasanu spoke to ExplorersWeb this week about his experience on  Dhaulagiri’s Northwest Ridge. One of the best climbs of the season, it was the only attempt on a new 8,000m route.

You’ve said elsewhere that this was the hardest climb of your life. Why?

It was a lot of work, a lot of steep sections, a lot of rope to carry and fix. Heavy backpacks transported on overhanging, narrow chimneys, where the backpack got stuck. A lot of snow and buried ropes. Working every second day to keep to schedule until you feel like you’re employed to do this. Often constant danger of avalanche, rock fall, falling, or crevasses. Sweating all the time, because of the effort or fear. When things got technically easier, the altitude kicked in. We had double the weight in our backpacks and climbed at one-third the speed.

At Dhaulagiri, another team had the same Northwest Ridge in mind (Carla Perez, Topo Mena, and Corey Richards). If they had continued, how would you have felt about sharing the route? Would you have joined forces or climbed independently?

We did not get to talk face to face beforehand with Topo and Carla, only by mail. By the time we talked, they already decided to do the normal route. But our conclusion was that the chimney on the Northwest Ridge route could not accommodate two teams working together. It was too dangerous in the chimney, and the camps could only accommodate one tent. By the end of the expedition, we felt the same. Only if the two teams worked on different days and went for the summit on two consecutive days was it possible. But even that would have been complicated.

The couloir leading to Camp 1. Photo: Peter Hamor

The chimney was the worst

What was the vertical spur leading to the ridge like? Were conditions different from your first attempt?

Conditions were ok, just a little worse than the first time. There was lots of snow on the face and too little on the rock barriers where we needed it. The route started with snowfields broken by some small rock sections, then a long [300m] chimney until C1. From that point, there was a rock spur, sometimes easy and sometimes steeper, where we fixed ropes. But the chimney was the worst by far, with an eight-metre long overhang.

When everything seemed to be going well, there was that avalanche. What happened?

Above Camp 1 (5,000m) we had no good place for camp. We used two places, an advanced C1 and a C2, in some snow-filled crevasses where we dug a platform. Not very safe, not very nice, but it was the only way to advance. For the third camp, we had to change our route and go lower and off the ridge onto the face to reach some seracs. But the traverse was huge, with a lot of snow, and we were very tired. The previous day had also been too long because of the lack of camp spots.

So we decided to shelter by the first serac, in order not to ruin our summit push with too long a stage. But in the afternoon, thick, wet snow started falling. This caused avalanches on the face. [At about 6 pm,] one of them went over the serac and crushed our tent and buried us.

We used our knives to get out. We were trapped in the tent, separated by snow, in the dark, and able to move our elbows only two or three centimetres.

Peter and I went out fast, in like 10 seconds. Then we dug Marius out, then the equipment. Finally, we built ourselves a nice snow cave for the night, with a very useful door made from the bottom of the tent.

The remains of their destroyed tent the morning after the avalanche. Photo: Peter Hamor

Impossible to continue without a tent

Did you turn around immediately or did you still consider trying to go ahead?

After the avalanche, the problem was that we had no tent. It was just impossible to continue without it. Bivouacking in a snow cave or an igloo while on a summit push up a new route sounds cool, but it’s not a movie made for the Himalaya.

We spent the night thinking about what to do because we were so focused on the summit. When I broke through the snow right after the avalanche, after the first gasp of air, I saw Peter. I apologized that I had to cut the tent. Then he cut his way out too. But in any case, the tent poles were all broken. The tent was completely destroyed.

The upper part of the route from Camp 1. Photo illustration: Peter Hamor

Did you ever consider the summit within reach? If not for the avalanche, do you think you would have made it?

No, we didn’t. The summit was still beyond some seracs at 7,200m. We only reached 6,800m. But from the seracs, we don’t think that it was too difficult if you follow the north plateau and the summit chimney on the normal route. Still, it was long.

But our main problem was crossing that face safely. There were no safe tent spots, and it was close to impossible to cross in one day, with 300m rope, pitons, Friends, snow anchors, a lot of gear.

Return to the NW Ridge?

If you had summited, did you plan to retreat the same way or would you have opted for a traverse? 

This depended on the conditions of our route compared to the normal one. Also, the position of our last camp, whether there were any difficulties on our route, and whether a trail was broken on the normal route. But we did consider both options.

Climbers on the normal route spoke of the tension in Base Camp because of the COVID outbreak and also around the use of ropes. Did any of it reach you?

We did not visit that BC. They were two to three hours away from us, so no. We chatted only with Topo, Carla, Tommy, and one Romanian, Adrian Laza, who visited us. All good guys.

The team’s Base Camp. Photo: Horia Colibasanu

Will you return to the Northwest Ridge?

Before we did, we’d have to solve a second-grade student’s problem: How do you cross a three-day face in one day without getting tired and with the same weight? Until we come up with at least a theoretical answer to that, any attempt is too risky — at least, for the way we approach climbing and life in general.

Crazy Kathmandu

After retreating, you returned to a locked-down Kathmandu with no flights home. Did that bring back memories of the previous year?

Oh yes, it was like 2020 reloaded. The Spanish Consulate and the Romanian one in Delhi kindly put us on a plane that came to Nepal with humanitarian aid. But the Nepal situation was quite crazy, with 800 people in a discotheque in March and just 70 cases per day. Then in May, it was 8,000 cases a day with 200 deaths and Pashupatinath temple smoking [with cremations]. A harsh warning for those who take the pandemic lightly or put politics before safety. Nepal did both.

Marius Gane (left) and Horia Colibasanu sharing chocolate, of which Colibasanu is quite fond of, for a dentist.

Himalayan ascents on crowded routes are drawing increasing criticism, with so many fixed ropes and the overuse of O2 and helicopters. What’s your take on the issue? 

It is more expensive to go as a small team than to go with 50 people. But it’s still not crazy expensive, and for sure it’s cheaper than Everest.

Also, the chances for success are lower and the risks are higher, but at least you don’t have to stand in line.

Using helicopters is quite a new trend, but if Sherpas brew your tea for you, what’s the difference? Helicopters are simply cheaper today than Sherpas. It’s not a giant shift in commercial expeditions or in clients’ thinking.

I don’t criticize because what’s the point of that? But it does amuse me. I’m holding my outrage for when they try to install a cable car on an 8,000m peak.

And when bad things happen because of crowding, such as when COVID hit the main Base Camp on Dhaulagiri, I hope not to be there.

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About the Author

Angela Benavides

Angela Benavides

Senior journalist, published author and communication consultant. Specialized on high-altitude mountaineering, with an interest for everything around the mountains: from economics to geopolitics. After five years exploring distant professional ranges, I returned to ExWeb BC in 2018. Feeling right at home since then!

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Don Paul
Don Paul
5 months ago

Maybe this would be a good route for a portaledge. The steep rock faces have less avalanche and rockfall danger. Even the upper part where it is marked C2, there is a small cliff band that might offer some protection. A portaledge and bolt kit add some more weight but there is nowhere else safe from the serac.

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