Weekend Warm-Up: Changabang and the Mirrors of Repetition

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.