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Alan Rousseau and Tino Villanueva Release the Kraken on Tengi Ragi Tau's west face

Posted on: November 21, 2019


[Alan Rousseau wrote the following report about the first ascent of Tengi Ragi Tau's west face, which he completed with Tino Villanueva in mid-October. The Americans named their route Release the Kraken (AI5 M5+, 1600m). It appears that this is also the first alpine-style ascent of the main peak (ca. 6940m) since its first ascent in 2002 by a a team of Japanese and Sherpa climbers who scaled the southeast face with fixed ropes. Other teams have climbed the shorter south summit (ca. 6180m) in alpine style. Rousseau and Villanueva's expedition was supported by a Copp-Dash Inspire Award.—Ed.]

The west face of Tengi Ragi Tau (ca. 6940m) with Release the Kraken (AI5 M5+, 1600m) drawn in red. Alan Rousseau and Tino Villanueva's three bivy sites are marked in blue near the beginning, middle and top of the upper rockband. [Photo] Alan RousseauThe west face of Tengi Ragi Tau (ca. 6940m) with Release the Kraken (AI5 M5+, 1600m) drawn in red. Alan Rousseau and Tino Villanueva's three bivy sites are marked in blue. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

Rousseau, left, and Villanueva pause for a selfie above the last 800 meters of rappels. This was their eighth consecutive day on the move and they had run out of food the previous day after summiting. [Photo] Tino VillanuevaRousseau, left, and Villanueva pause for a selfie above the last 800 meters of rappels. This was their eighth consecutive day on the move and they had run out of food the previous day after summiting. [Photo] Tino Villanueva

A lot has changed in our lives since Tino Villanueva and I first considered the idea of climbing Tengi Ragi Tau (ca. 6940m) in Nepal eight and a half years ago, but our partnership has remained strong.

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As we planned for our first Himalayan expedition in 2011, the peak captured our imagination. It wasn't until this past October, however—after another 20 expeditions each—that we managed to pull off a goal that had begun to feel more like a fantasy.

Last October marked our third expedition to the peak. On our first trip to the Himalaya in 2012, Tino and I completed the first ascent of Langmoche Ri (6611m), which is the northernmost satellite peak of Tengi Ragi Tau (supported by American Alpine Club Fellowship grant). We'd hoped to enchain that summit with Tengi Ragi Tau by climbing the north ridge that connected the peaks. We turned around at the summit of Langmoche Ri after seeing the complexity of the North Ridge. The summit of Langmoche Ri is still a long way from Tengi Ragi Tau. I remember being mesmerized by the sheer magnitude of the west face when we walked below it.

We returned in 2014 to try the peak again by a more direct line up the west face. We climbed a little over half of the face on that trip, again still far from the summit (supported by AAC Cutting Edge Grant). Our weather was not ideal, and there were flaws in our mental and physical preparation for the trip. Although our retreat in 2014 stung quite a bit, we learned valuable lessons.

IN AUGUST, we made a last-minute decision to return to Tengi Ragi Tau. We'd previously held a permit to climb in Kashmir, but climbing permits were revoked until further notice on August 5 when the Indian government announced "changes to the constitutional and legal status of the state of Jammu and Kashmir" (Washington Post). Those controversial changes shifted Kashmir's status from an autonomous region to a union territory and caused a significant amount of unrest for the people there. According to the August 7 Washington Post article quoted above, "the federal government anticipated an angry response to its announcement and flooded J&K—already one of the world's most militarized regions—with tens of thousands of troops and instituted a curfew. Over the weekend, the Indian government placed mainstream politicians under house arrest and shut off Internet and phone connectivity."

Since we had little time to plan a new trip, returning to a familiar area seemed logical.

Rousseau leading Pitch 2. [Photo] Tino VillanuevaRousseau leading Pitch 2. [Photo] Tino Villanueva

WE ARRIVED in Nepal on September 27. The monsoon still had its grip on Kathmandu. The rains arrived late this year, and were sticking around longer than anyone wanted them to. Despite the unsettled weather, our flight into Lukla, trek to Thame, and acclimatization went as planned.

We didn't need to wait long for the weather to shift. We'd acclimatized and spent two rest days in Thame when the forecast predicted a week of no precipitation and relatively warm temperatures.

A couple of people in Thame helped us transport some equipment 2000 meters higher from the village up to Teshi Laptsa Pass, where we camped. This allowed us to walk a short distance to the west face the next day.

The morning of October 12, we went over the pass and dropped down 450 meters to the base of our objective (5400m). We spent the afternoon relaxing in the tent. The wind picked up as the sun went down, and small pieces of ice and rock peppered our tent. While discussing if we should move the tent, a rock about the size of a quarter blew through the tent wall. We were left with a six-inch gash in the nylon.

Our relaxed state quickly turned to agitation. We moved our tent and patched the hole in temperatures well below freezing. We used our entire sleeping pad repair kit, a couple Band-Aids and most of our cloth tape to make a patch that would hopefully last the next five days.

The technical climbing began the next morning. After we carefully stuffed the tent, a few pitches of M5 went by quickly on spectacular granite. We couldn't help smiling at how enjoyable the climbing was. The conditions were drier than they had been on our previous attempt in 2014, so our line was slightly different through the initial rockband.

Long sections of simulclimbing ensued when we reached the snow above. Most of the first day was 60- to 70-degree alpine ice, with the occasional moderate mixed step or steeper portion of ice. The calf fatigue was noticeable on the last few ropelengths. We were happy to arrive at a familiar bivouac at 6300 meters that we had used in 2014. Five years ago, we'd reached it in the dark. This time we had two hours in the sun to relax, prep a tent platform, and catch up on hydration and nutrition.

The last pitch of Day 1: Villanueva reaches the bivy site at 6300 meters. [Photo] Alan RousseauThe last pitch of Day 1: Villanueva reaches the bivy site at 6300 meters. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

We surpassed our previous high point on Day 2, which was our fifth day from base camp. There was an obvious crux band around 6600 meters. Fortunately we found a small snow ledge next to a slightly overhung portion of rock just before it. We took our time prepping a tent platform and again had a couple hours of direct sun to dry out the sleeping bag and tent. I remembered looking up at the rockband with trepidation the last time I was there. It was a relief to look at it with excitement this time.

The last pitch of Day 2: Villanueva nearing the bivy site at 6600 meters. [Photo] Alan RousseauThe last pitch of Day 2: Villanueva nearing the bivy site at 6600 meters. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

Villanueva psyched to have chopped out a spot in the ice that is big enough for the tent. [Photo] Alan RousseauVillanueva psyched to have chopped out a spot in the ice that is big enough for the tent. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

The third day on the face was some of the most quality climbing we have done in the high mountains. The crux was five pitches of mostly amenable ice and mixed ground on solid granite. We dropped some mental weight as the pitches fell below us. As the passage became clear, for the first time, we began to think that topping out the peak looked probable.

In 2012, on Langmoche Ri, the upper thousand vertical feet were a battle up unprotected snow flutings. In 2014 we'd climbed the first ascent of the west face of Pachermo, the next peak to the south, and experienced even deeper, more unconsolidated snow. Those experiences gave us a pretty good idea of what the final thousand feet of Tengi Ragi Tau likely had in store. As the ice hose finished, we accepted that the fun climbing was over and it was time to go to work on the upper mountain.

Rousseau leading the high crux of the route at 6700 meters on Day 3. [Photo] Tino VillanuevaRousseau leading the high crux of the route at 6700 meters on Day 3. [Photo] Tino Villanueva

We headed into a labyrinth of wind-sculpted snow features that reached down like giant tentacles off the summit ridge. We climbed consistently steep terrain for several ropelengths, very much like what we had expected to find. Eventually, at 6800 meters, I was excavating snow to find an anchor and realized I had unintentionally chopped out about half a tent platform, and we decided to enhance it for our third bivouac. It was either sleep there or on/near the summit. We figured we might be a bit more protected from the wind if we hunkered into the west face.

We finished prepping the platform as the sun was fading and settled into the tent cautiously with our feet hanging off the platform. We never did find any ice or rock, so our anchor was two snow pickets in the aerated Himalayan snow. I dreaded the times I had to rollover that night.

Villanueva following a pitch on Day 3. [Photo] Alan RousseauVillanueva following a pitch on Day 3. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

The fourth morning on the face we woke up early to try and finish off the final few pitches of climbing. Our plan was to descend our route, and there would still be a lot of work to do after we reached the summit. The sun was nowhere near the west face as we started up, so we both froze wallowing up the final ropelengths.

We hit the summit ridge in dream conditions. It was 9 a.m. We sat on our packs in the sun and thawed out at 6900 meters. It was the first time we'd been able to sit without chopping a ledge in four days. We could see the true summit was only a 10- to 15-minute walk away. We both felt disbelief to be standing there. The peak had eluded us for so long, I think we had made it out to be a bit of a mythical beast. For that reason, and for the wild upper snow features, we named our route Release the Kraken (AI5 M5+, 1600m).

Villanueva leading in the long stretch of snow above the technical crux. [Photo] Alan RousseauVillanueva leading in the long stretch of snow above the technical crux. [Photo] Alan Rousseau

Neither of us wanted to leave the summit; it was warm without any wind. We knew the sun wouldn't hit the west face for hours. After 10 minutes on top we willed ourselves back down into the shadow of the west face. We rappelled off buried stuff sacks and snow bollards, and also left our pickets behind as anchors. At 6700 meters there was enough rock and ice present to build V-threads and rock anchors, which was an incredible relief.

We stopped and slept another night at 6300 meters because it was getting too hot to safely descend in the afternoon sun. The following morning, on empty stomachs, we rappelled the remainder of the face and hiked back over Teshi Laptsa Pass, all the way back to Thame. It was a 14-hour day, our eighth consecutive day on the move. As we stumbled into Thame that night, we agreed that this was by far the most fatigued either of us had been.

"You know this is never going to happen again, right?" Tino said as we approached the teahouse.

"What's that?"

"Things will never go this smoothly again," he said definitively.

I paused, chuckling at the descriptor of "smooth": we started the route with a ripped tent, had a high, exposed bivouac with a marginal anchor, spent an extra night on the wall without enough food and rappelled 1,000 feet off of stuff sacks. The list of bumps in the road could go on. But despite all the less than ideal moments, Tino was probably right.

"Yep, smoothest trip so far for sure," I said. Seemed accurate.

[Shortly after Rousseau and Villanueva's ascent, Symon Welfringer (France) and Silvan Schupbach (Switzerland) completed another route on the west face to Tengi Ragi Tau's northern summit (ca. 6820m), which they named Trinite (AI5 M6, 400m). Rousseau wrote about another ascent he completed with Villanueva on Rungofarka in 2017 that can be found here.—Ed.]

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