A Swiss climber is just about to attempt a new solo route on the sheer south face of Annapurna I . The 8,000m peak is one of the country's most treacherous and avalanche-prone .
Ueli Steck wants to finish a route first tried by two French climbers in 1992. Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Pierre Beghin attempted to conquer the world's tenth highest mountain via its south face. Their expedition had a tragic end when Beghin fell to his death at about 7,100m. It took Laifalle five days to get back to base camp.
Annapurna I is Steck's second big project this year. In February he set a new speed record on the notorious Eiger North Face in Switzerland, whizzing up the icy rock wall in 3 hours and 54 minutes, a full 46 minutes faster than the previous record.
The 30-year-old Steck, who is considered one of the strongest mountaineers climbing now, said he even surprised himself: "I was amazed, I hadn't thought this was humanly possible."
The idea to scale the south face of Annapurna 1 was born in 2004 when Steck bagged two major Himalayan peaks in a row. He soloed the north face of Cholatse, which is a 1,500m high vertical rock and ice wall, and the East Face of Taboche. "After I had finished the \'Khumbu-Express\' I knew I had to climb an 8,000m peak. So I had to come up with a good plan and the south face of Annapurna I looked most appealing to me," he said.
All his climbs so far have been done without oxygen, as for Steck using \'gas\' would be \'cheating\'. "The experience would not be the same with oxygen. People are fooling themselves, only pretending to be at a certain altitude," he argued. The trained carpenter is also critical of the commercialisation of Everest, but says he'd love to stand on the top of the world one day-if wallet and time allow.
But for now all Steck wants is to get up Annapurna I, his way. He says he isn't scared, but seems a little nervous sitting by the pool in his hotel. "I have to pull myself together and avoid thinking about it too much. otherwise the face will even become higher and more overhanging," he said. "But I think I've reached the limit of my physical abilities. I can't get any stronger or faster-the only thing I can do is go higher."
Halfway through this spring climbing season, a lot has already happened on the world's highest peaks. Two climbers from Kazakhstan, Maxut Zhumayev, 30, and Vassily Pivtsov, 31, summitted Everest on 30 April via the North Col without using supplementary oxygen. Both climbers have now scaled 11 of the 14 eight thousanders without oxygen. Their summits of Everest are said to be the earliest so far from the north side.
According to the Discovery Channel, five sherpas, led by Phurba Tashi, reached the top of the world on the same day Zhumayev and Pivtsov topped out. The dispatch also describes the ordeal of the Kazakhs' descent and how they had to be assisted by the sherpas to make it back to Advanced Base Camp. "At ABC the men revealed that they had gone 48 hours without a drop of water and no extra oxygen during their summit push and descent", the website said. They are reported to be well.
Everest has also claimed its first casualty of the year. Dawa Sherpa, who was from the Makalu region, was killed between Camp II and Camp III on the Nepal side. The Ministry of Tourism says he fell down the Kharpas crevasse while on his way up to Camp III on 26 April.
Another mountaineer going for all eight-thousanders bagged Dhaulagiri I, his twelfth. Spaniard Inaki Ocha de Olza reached the summit at the 8,167 on 26 April. His teammate and compatriot Jorge Egocheaga followed shortly after, but later had to be evacuated from Base Camp due to frostbite. Other Dhaulagiri ascents reported include those of Romanian Horia Colibasanu and Kazakh team members Serguey Samoilov, Svetlana Sharipova, and Eugeny Shutov on 1 May, and a speed summit by Denis Urubko on 2 May.
An Italian climber is said to have fallen to his death just below the summit the day Ochoa topped out.
There have already been a few summits of Cho Oyo, the world's sixth highest mountain, with Italians Silvio Mondinelli and Marco Confortola reaching the top after an impressive 20-hour push from Camp I.
Despite the early summits on Everest, most teams are still waiting for the weather window, which traditionally arrives between 15 and 25 May. However, last year was a late Everest season with climbers reaching the summit as late as early June.
Annapurna I for beginners
. Annapurna I (8,091m) is the tenth highest mountain in the world and the eighth highest in Nepal.
. Annapurna was first climbed via the North Face by a French expedition led by Maurice Herzog in 1950.
. Annapurna I is notorious for its avalanche danger. Legendary climbers like Anatoli Boukreev from Russia and Christian Kuntner from Italy have died on the mountain.
. Lafaille, who attempted the south face 1992 but turned backed when his partner fell to his death, died on Makalu (8,463m) in January 2006 while trying a solo winter ascent.
. Related links: www.mounteverest.net, www.uelisteck.ch (German).