Weekend Warm-Up: Changabang and the Mirrors of Repetition

Photo: Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne

A mountain’s challenge is not dictated by height alone. Nestled in the Indian Himalaya, Changabang doesn’t quite break 7,000m. It has been climbed only a handful of times but has seen more than its share of drama.

The Mirrors of Repetition follows three French alpinists climbing the tricky north face of Changabang in 2018. The trio, Léo Billon, Sébastien Moatti and Sébastien Ratel, are well aware that their climb won’t be considered groundbreaking. The documentary begins by comparing climbers on repeat routes to astronauts: Only the first are heroes, the rest are forgotten.

But should climbers feel that their achievement is lessened? After all, more people have made it into space than have stood on the summit of Changabang.

Six years before the climb in this film, two Mexican mountaineers disappeared without a trace on their way down Changabang. The last successful ascent (and descent) had been in 1997 but had cost climber Brendan Murphey his life. The documentary draws numerous parallels between the 1997 and 2018 climbs.

However, there are key differences too. Without advanced weather forecasts, the 1997 climbers were forced to climb “heavy and slow.” By 2018, meteorological predictions allowed Billon, Moatti, and Ratel to pack light and try to take advantage of a very short three-day weather window.

From my chair, climbing Changabang looks spectacular. The feedback from the climbers paints a different picture. It’s “heinous”, “pretty unpleasant”, involves dealing with a 200m black-ice slope and with snow “the consistency of sugar.”

The imposing north face of Changabang. Photo: Groupe Militaire de Haute Montagne

The climb is not smooth sailing. Billon is pretty sick by the time they hit the long summit ridge. At several points, the trio almost calls it quits. On the summit, as the weather window closes, the prospect of a dangerous descent looms. They have to make tough decisions, the first of which is to skip a three-hour round trip to the highest peak, just 20 tantalizingly metres above the sub-summit on which they’re standing.

The second tough decision is which face to descend. The south face, where an avalanche carried away Murphey 21 years earlier? Or the colder, more exposed north face? “The best decision doesn’t exist,” we are told by a psychologist. The important thing is to decide quickly.

They head down the north face engulfed in cloud and snow. Billon, Moatti, and Ratel were not first, they didn’t blaze a new route, but their achievement is notable. A repeat route reduces the fear of the unknown but when a route’s history appears cursed, repeating safely should be celebrated.

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About the Author

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh

Martin Walsh is a freelance writer and wildlife photographer based in Da Lat, Vietnam.

A history graduate from the University of Nottingham, Martin's career arc is something of a smörgåsbord. A largely unsuccessful basketball coach in Zimbabwe and the Indian Himalaya, a reluctant business lobbyist in London, and an interior design project manager in Saigon.

He has been fortunate enough to see some of the world. Highlights include tracking tigers on foot in Nepal, white-water rafting the Nile, bumbling his way from London to Istanbul on a bicycle, feeding wild hyenas with his face in Ethiopia, and accidentally interviewing Hezbollah in Lebanon.

His areas of expertise include adventure travel, hiking, wildlife, and half-forgotten early 2000s indie-rock bands.

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Rob Lomas
Rob Lomas
8 months ago

Wow! I thoroughly (!) enjoyed this documentary. Kudos and thank you to the climbers and producers and to Ex-Web for bringing it to my attention. It was a clever plot device to contrast the climb to those who went unheralded as the “seconds” within another realm of outstanding human achievement. I wonder whether this was on the minds of the climbers ex-ante, or whether it resonated in light of a muted and indifferent response from the climbing world after their triumphant return. Another element that adds to the quality of the film is the volume of on-route climbing footage. I… Read more »

Twinkletoes
Twinkletoes
8 months ago

A really good film about some very real mountaneering… that’s some really hard climbing to do at such altitudes.
In an interview one of the GMHM guys stated that the ice on Changabang is so hard, you can barely drive anything in. He also mentioned they tried to leave nothing up there, but had some stuck rope they had to cut.

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