Phantom Line on Jugal Spire : a mountain exploration. The story 2/2


After the first part of the story, Paul Ramsden and Tim Miller are now ready to climb the Jugal Spire as their eyes turn to a thin line of ice. Second part of the story, told by Tim Miller.

At 3am the next morning our alarms beeped and we were tugged from our dreams and reminded of the monumental task at hand. Without a word we packed bags in the cold morning air and retraced our steps from the previous afternoon across the glacier as the sun started to light the tops of faraway peaks.

Not yet in a rhythm, I struggled under the weight of my pack while I fought steep snow over the bergschrund. I would stop every so often to pant furiously and warm my numb fingers. As soon as I could, I stopped to make a belay to give myself a rest and pass the work over to Paul. The route started to steepen up, the snow turned to ice and we fell into a rhythm that worked.

Climbing in lots of quick 40m pitches allowed the climber a frequent rest and prevented the belayer getting too cold. After 13 pitches we had climbed a huge third of the face, admittedly this was the easiest portion.

The best bivi spot on the face. ©Tim Miller

We couldn’t have asked for a better place
To stay on such a steep face

On one of the last pitches of the day I arrived at a belay ledge and kicked the ice with the side of my crampon to make a small stance. As I did so the metal loop connecting the ankle strap to the crampon base popped off. The crampon was no longer attached to my foot and skidded down the ice a few meters, then stopped precariously in a patch of snow. As Paul climbed up towards me, he was able to simply pluck it out the snow and hand it back to me without a drama.

We marvelled at the ease in which the situation was solved and grimaced at the thought of the potential complex retreat that could have ensued spelling the end of the trip and months of planning.

We arrived at what we had spotted as a potential bivi spot through the binoculars and to our surprise discovered an overhanging rock cave with snow beneath that we were able to flatten off and pitch a tent on (with the edges hanging in space). We couldn’t have asked for a better place to stay on such a steep face.

Still clipped in and with harness on, the rest of the evening passed quickly with snow being melted for tea, juice, dinner and finally tea again. All with a particular routine that prevented spills, promoted efficiency and avoided too much steam condensing on the walls of the tent.

The wall of chimneys and the key to the face. ©Tim Miller

The main task for the following day was to tackle the so called “crux chimneys”. These were a gap in the line of ice and represented one of the bigger question marks between us and success.

After packing up camp we rounded the corner and our eyes met a 100m steep wall of rock split by an ugly curving chimney. It was the only line of weakness in the wall and we had to get up it. Leaving my rucksack at the belay allowed me to get inside the chimney at points and make upwards progress by squirming. My feet peddling on small edges and chest grating up the side causing several ragged tears to open on my jacket. Loose rocks would clatter down as I struggled to hook anything with my axes.

Has the face been unlocked? Could We Celebrate?

I was very grateful that my Scottish winter apprenticeship had prepared me well for this type of climbing. After 3 pitches of this, and the very exhausting job of hauling rucksacks, we had re-joined the ice ramp. Hauling was a much harder job for Paul, who not only had to climb the pitch, but also had to simultaneously dislodge the rucksacks with one hand after they would get jammed every few meters.

Had the face been unlocked? Could we celebrate? Not yet, we still knew there were likely to be further challenges up ahead, but solving the problem of the chimneys was a big step forward.

Chimney pitch 1, bags had to be hauled as the climbing required getting inside the chimney and squirming. ©Paul Ramsden

We completed another few pitches that brought us to the “first white spider” – one of two circular snowfields reminiscent of their namesake on the Eiger. The hard labour never stopped and after a quick brew we set to work preparing our accommodation for the night.

This involved Paul’s very own homemade snow hammock, an invention that when fastened to an anchor at either end can be filled with snow while a ledge is cut to form a flat platform big enough to pitch a tent on. Quite an unexpected luxury on a 60-degree ice slope.

We were lying down in the tent after dinner, content at having completed a good day of progress when Paul, who had his back to the slope, was forcefully pushed forward. A large amount of snow had fallen down the gap between the tent and the face. This was not good news. I jumped out my sleeping bag, threw on my down jacket, boots, gloves and head torch and stepped outside.

Unbeknownst to us, it had been snowing while we were in the tent. The face was too steep to be of any avalanche danger, but waterfalls of spindrift were cascading down and accumulating behind the tent, threatening to push it off its perch. We had to work constantly, one at either side, to dig out the snow before the next assault came. Wind whipped snow, lit up inches in front of our face by the beam of our torches, and the outlines of the other person were all we could make out for hours.

After a while we realised that this was not going to be sustainable and we pulled the tent in towards the slope, spindrift fell on its side and flattened it into the platform, before long it was buried under a meter of snow, but at least this way we wouldn’t lose it off the cliff. 

All we could do now was stand with our backs to the slope while intermittent torrents of snow poured down on us deep into the night. We turned our torches off, slipped into a trance state and embraced the grim position we found ourselves in – standing in a snow storm, strapped to the side of a mountain at 6000m in the middle of the night.

After an immeasurable amount of time the volume of spindrift had partially subsided and we were getting too cold. So, we uncovered the tent, removed the poles and sat inside it like a double bivi bag. Whenever a shower of spindrift fell on us, we pressed our backs against the slope to stop it accumulating behind us and using our arms raised the tent fabric in front of us sliding the snow off the tent. This prevented us being buried, but also kept us busy all night.

“Where is that bloody nut!” ©Paul Ramsden

Paul’s very own, homemade, snow hammock allowing us to create a good sized ledge. ©Tim Miller

Eventually, to our huge relief, the sky started to lighten and brought a bit of warmth with it. We packed up our kit and set off climbing for the day. We had had virtually no sleep and our progress was noticeably slower. A couple of pitches got us across the white spider and then the ground started to wildly drop away to our left. Below us was a huge 700m sweep of granite, our ramp continued to traverse across the top of it in a brilliantly exposed position.

Then the good ice disappeared and was replaced with large amounts of unconsolidated snow on top of rock slabs. Once again, I left my bag at the belay and led a pitch of Scottish-style tenuous mixed climbing up a groove that led to just below the “second white spider”. More hauling faff ensued in our exhausted state. We had only covered 150 meters of elevation but we were in dire need of a rest and who knew where the next possible bivi spot was.

Once again, the snow hammock saved the day and allowed us to pitch the tent. At one point we were given a scare when a flurry of spindrift came down, we thought we were about to have a repeat of the previous night, but thankfully it was a one off. That evening we were even treated to a glorious sun set, but we were so knackered we hardly appreciated it and were asleep instantly despite our cold and cramped sleeping quarters. 

We went from being cooked alive to being forced to warm hands
and swing feet every few paces to keep them from frostbite

Three very steep and looming pitches on the head wall lay between us and the final snow slopes. Paul started us off on these the next morning, the ice was good and squeaky and the first two pitches proved to be very enjoyable. On the third, the ice thinned out, then disappeared as the groove system moved left around a protruding bulge of rock. Once again, this required bag free climbing and all my Scottish winter choss experience before I finally collapsed onto the bottom of the summit ice slopes.

The time was only 11 am, so we decided to press on and aim for a shoulder we had spotted just below the summit where we would be able to pitch the tent easily. By now the altitude had truly caught up with us and our pace reduced to a few steps before stopping to gasp for air.

The ice required a frustrating amount of force before it took pick placements, sapping our limited remaining energy. The sun burst from behind a cloud and, reflecting off the snow, started to boil us in all our layers. Each pitch was taking longer and longer. Even talking became a big effort so it was reduced to short measured bursts when we could fit in between heavy breathing. Finally, the sun set and our saturated gloves froze immediately around our hands as the temperature plummeted. We went from being cooked alive to being forced to warm hands and swing feet every few paces to keep them from frostbite.

The second “White Spider” where we spent night 3 on the wall. The steep head wall pitches loom above. ©Tim Miller

The top of the slope was getting close and I led a pitch to the bottom of a small rock band. As I approached, it turned out to be an overhang which formed a perfect cave beneath with a lip of ice protecting it. I rolled into the cave and lay panting for several minutes, utterly exhausted and extremely relieved that we had found a suitable bivi spot for the night.

The cave was only a few feet high, and all our bulky jackets made it tricky to move around, but we managed to create a flat sleeping platform. Just as we were having dinner and laying our sleeping bags out, snow began to blow into the cave and circulate around settling on our kit. This required an urgent reset to keep things as dry as possible. All this while it was bitterly cold and simple jobs such as opening packets and eating had to be done with gloves on.

The previous few days Paul had been developing an altitude cough and exacerbated by the extreme cold and elevation it now became alarmingly constant and rasping. He didn’t tell me till later, but at the time he was concerned it may develop into HAPE (high-altitude pulmonary edema) pand we would have to go down immediately missing the summit.

Summit success. ©Tim Miller

An extremely cold night with numb digits ensued. We woke up in the morning, wrapped ourselves in all the layers we had and stumbled out the cave.

2 pitches of easy snow brought us onto the shoulder then up to the summit. Dazed by the morning sun and the numbing cold we fumbled to take a few photos and absorb the view. Any emotions were largely suppressed by the stifling sense of exhaustion. We had summited an unclimbed and unnamed peak via an exceptional route over 5 days and 37 pitches.

We retreated back to the shoulder and put together a plan of descent. We had spotted an obvious couloir on the opposite side of the mountain that ran from a col 500 meters below the summit straight back to the glacier. 

We developed a routine
making sure no mistakes were made
at this late stage in the game

All we had to do was abseil on V-threads down the ice slope and into the couloir. Even this was knackering for our tired bodies in the morning sun. We developed a routine making sure no mistakes were made at this late stage in the game. Once half way down the couloir the angle eased enough to allow us to down climb the rest of the way with a final abseil over the bergschrund and onto the glacier. What had taken 5 days to ascend, had taken 5 hours to do the opposite.

By now the cloud had rolled in for the day and snow was starting to fall. Feeling utterly drained we stumbled across the glacier in the fog. The crampons I was wearing had steel front points and aluminium bases to save weight. On the climb they had been great, but now after days of being worn down I was forced to front point backwards down any slightly steep decline.

Despite this we made it back to our much-appreciated food stash where we decided to stop for the day since we needed the rest and crossing the moraine covered glacier with the extra layer of snow on the boulders was too much to handle at that point.

Now at last, finally able to relax, we felt the relief of being down safe and the satisfaction of our achievements begin to wash over us. I wasn’t able to get to sleep for a while despite being warm and having a flat bed for the first time in several nights.

while we walked, we would whistle
into the mist to tell basecamp
we were on the way

We woke to grey skies and snow still covering the moraine, the going was slow and our steps clumsy with fatigue. With a bit of guess work we were able to make it across the glacier in the thick fog and to the grassy moraine valley on the side of the glacier.

Every so often, while we walked, we would whistle into the mist to tell basecamp we were on the way (we were a day late by this point). A few hundred meters from basecamp our cook and cooks helper came out to greet us with an extremely welcome flask of hot juice, a KitKat and some cheese that provided the essential energy to stumble the rest of the way to camp. We threw our bags down and collapsed into our tent feeling weak but happy.

The next few days passed in a blur of eating the many brilliant meals provided by our cook and sleeping. Our thoughts drifted back to the climb and we simmered in satisfaction. The porters arrived a day later and, in a chaotic mess, basecamp was packed up and we started the slow march home. 

So we settled on Jugal Spire

On the first day of the walk out a hail storm blew in which then turned to snow making the going hard work. Since descending from the peak, Paul’s cough had continued and now with the added fatigue he suddenly collapsed. He picked himself back up and was able to walk the last few hours to our camp for that night where he took some chest infection antibiotics and over the following days his condition dramatically improved. On tired and blistered feet, we travelled down through the changing climate into jungle, bird song and buzzing insects, eventually making it to the road.

In Kathmandu we had a few days to catch up with the outside world and our peaceful bubble of reading and sleeping was replaced by emails and jobs. I bought a few presents for my family and we enjoyed eating out while reminiscing about the climb. Then the time came to catch our flights home. Although the trip had come to an end, we knew we would continue to “bask in retrospective pleasure” for a while to come.

We spoke to several locals to ask if they had a name for the mountain that we had climbed, but none did, only referring to the who group as The Jugal Himal.

Utterly knackered stumbling back to basecamp in the ming. ©Paul Ramsden

So we settled on Jugal Spire. We then named the route The Phantom Line as we were never sure whether the line would have ice all the way and several big question marks lingered over its possibility right up to the end. Was it there was it not? Did it exist as a climbable entity?

There were 2 essential ingredients that allowed this trip to be a success: the first, discovering such an amazing and improbable route on an immaculate, unclimbed face that leads to an unclimbed summit is extremely rare and very special. Finding these gems takes a lot of cunning and know how.

The second ingredient is understanding the tactics to allow such big routes to be climbed safely and successfully – where to stop, how to bivi, how much food & kit, when to pitch etc. 

Both these ingredients are Paul’s forte and it is due to his experience in these areas that we were able to succeed. I can’t thank him enough for inviting me along on another of his brilliant adventures.

> Read the first part of this story : Phantom line on Jugal Spire : a new route and an nunclimbed peak. The story 1/2.