Back in 1963, Tom Hornbein and Willi Unsoeld climbed the West Ridge of Everest: an Indian Air Force aerial photo had suggested it was possible, the conditions were good, and though it was illegal at the time to cross into China…well, there was nobody up there to turn them back. Their alpine style ascent of this new route is still revered as one of the great milestones in Himalayan climbing and, so far, despite the famous popularity of Everest, virtually nobody has been back through what became known as the Hornbein Couloir.
In late 2017, Horia Colibășanu, the Romanian high altitude mountaineer, contacted us to say he had a big project in the Himalayas, and he needed some gear…
Now, Horia had already been up K2, Manaslu, Dhaulagiri, Shishapangma, Annapurna, Makalu, Lhotse and Everest – without bottled oxygen – so we knew he had to be doing something major! But we didn’t know what.
What we did know was that he was going high in the Himalayas, without O2, and that he wanted to wear an Expedition Double Suit.
The Double Suit was created to cope with the huge temperature difference experienced by high altitude mountaineers as they descend from the frozen summit, especially when the modern technique of using ascenders on fixed ropes results in the harness trap: if you can’t take off your harness, you can’t take off your suit.
With the Double Suit though, the harness goes over the one-piece inner, then the two-piece outer goes over the top when needed (and then comes off again just as easily). Ropework on the harness can protrude through the outer, and you can keep on climbing.
As it turns out, Horia and his partner – Slovak climber Peter Hámor – were indeed looking to repeat the Hornbein Couloir without oxygen. But the conditions, ultimately, turned against them. They fixed 500m of rope, but then snow, wind, and sunshine created a slab which, during the night, came crashing down.
“The rest was left hanging up there, on the 400m without fixed ropes. The fracture line was clearly visible, and our route was supposed to cross the slab. Just as you’d cut obliquely through a curtain and hope that somehow the lower part would not fall to the ground. After 30 minutes of gawking at the upper slabs, as well as those which had come down in the avalanche, we decided the risk was too high.”
Discretion, as they say, is the better part of valour. Nevertheless, the doubt nagged as to whether they’d decided to play it too safe, but chatting later to a helicopter pilot about why they’d aborted, they were reassured that “On the south face of Baruntse, at 6,500m, nothing stuck. There was ice and all the snow fell. Very unstable!” So perhaps it was the right call after all!
There was more to their plan, though they have remained very indistinct about what the remainder of it was. Horia’s own website says they were looking to open up a new route to Everest summit, but not what it was. Some reports said they were intending to try for the Everest-Lhotse link-up, but while Horia has now said the first part of their project was to retrace Hornbein’s route, he’s also said the second part remains a secret.
And that’s fair enough.
So, commiserations to the team, but Horia has been talking about getting in another year of training and hoping that Tom Hornbein lives at least until next year, so there’s more than a hint of another attempt…