Until we arrived at Jannu base camp, neither Valery nor I knew for sure where our future route would go. Of course, we had a couple of ideas based on friends' photographs and stories, but we still had to establish the relevance of those impressions. Often, images don't reflect the real picture; or, even worse, they distort it. For me, the selection of a route has always been akin to a state of pure creation, like that of a master sculptor seeing in a piece of marble something not visible even to his most skillful apprentices. Without a doubt, in our case Valery was the master sculptor. At that time, I had only one new route to my credit, a line in the Nether-Polar Ural Mountains; Valery had several dozen in the Alps and in the Himalaya.
We knew for certain that attempting the steep monoliths of the north face without fixed ropes was a pathway to infinity. Four years earlier, Alexander Odintsov's team had spent almost fifty days climbing the center of this wall. Hypothetically, moving in alpine style, we could repeat their route two or three times faster, but we'd still have to take enough food or gear for almost twenty days. The logic is inescapable: the longer you climb, the heavier the starting weight of your backpack. The heavier your backpack, the slower, and hence the longer you climb. And the longer you climb, the heavier your backpack feels. And so on to infinity!
Therefore, Valery and I looked for the following criteria: the line had to be logical; it had to be safe; and it had to have a lot of ice on it, so we could gain altitude quickly enough to achieve an ideal of finishing it in just a week or slightly longer. There weren't many options that met our criteria—just two. The first was a steep snow-and-ice ramp, far to the left of the north face; the second was a route on the west pillar. After several days of observation, we decided the ramp was too chancy: an enormous overhanging serac, not initially visible in the photos, might collapse at any time.
So we chose the west pillar, at last, veering up an ice couloir that led to a pass between the peaks of Sobithongje and Jannu. But I couldn't tear my gaze away from the north face, to the left of our route. Its immensity was so mesmerizing it made me dizzy. Such a cosmic cold issued from its frozen granite walls, even when I had my back to it, I felt as if it were watching me. Perhaps someday, a pair will climb a direct route on the north face in alpine style, but they'll need to accept the likelihood that they're buying themselves a one-way ticket.
Valery and I took eight days instead of the planned six to reach the summit. There came a point when we had to ration food and fuel. I can't say we felt like eating at that altitude. Worn out, we tried to draw strength from our emotional state. I felt charged with energy watching Valery overcome one problem after another with seeming ease, his technique and speed on the frozen cliffs and vertical ice akin to perfection.
Sergey Kofanov on the alpine-style first ascent of the West Pillar (aka: "Magic Pillar"), with Valery Babanov, in 2007. In Alpinist 24, Babanov recalled the climb: "Our worn-out bodies fight against a furious, chaotic nature. We can't overcome it, but something won't let us stop. Stubbornness? A love of life? What we're doing now—this is life." [Photo] Valery Babanov
That strength began to leave us during the descent from the summit tower and the cold unplanned bivy at 7600 meters. For the last two days, we ate nothing and drank little. Gale-force winds blew our remaining vitality away. Trying to outshout them, we became hoarse. Somewhere on the fourth or fifth rappel, one of my crampons fell off. I seemed to spend an eternity hanging extended in the air, scraping my feet along hard ice, utterly weak and helpless. Finally, I could hook the other crampon into the icy shell of the mountain and remedy the situation.
By noon on the second day, we'd unroped on the saddle between Sobithongie and Jannu. To conserve energy, I focused on following Valery's tracks, without looking around. All at once, his footprints ended. In front of me gaped the bottomless chasm of the north face. I looked up: in twenty meters the tracks started again. It turned out that Valery had moved closer to the edge to see our base camp. After he turned back, he heard at first a rustling sound, and then a crash. A multi-ton cornice—where he'd just been standing—collapsed down the north face.
We reached the lower firn plateau with the last rays of sun. As we slowly moved farther from the north face, I felt its icy stare still not letting us go. I started to insist that we should stop, but Valery believed that we might not survive another night without food and water. Rappelling over a rock bastion, I was too drained to hold on to the thin rope. It slid through my hands, and I fell a few meters to a ledge. Valery had already reached the base of the route, a few pitches below, and he had even begun removing his pack and crampons.
Fortunately, I was only stunned, but when I tried to answer Valery's shouts, I could only croak and howl like a dying animal. At least Valery could tell by the sounds that I was still breathing somewhere above. After I rejoined him, we left our climbing gear hanging; we hoped to retrieve it the next day. The next day didn't come for me until evening when I woke in my tent. Valery also took a long time to come to—only to discover that his toes were frostbitten. It wasn't until the third day that I could gather enough of myself to return to the wall and remove the ropes.
Once again, I plunged into the world of Jannu, but this time I was alone. I felt the sharp gaze of the mountain pierce the layers of my clothing. I felt in my skin its attempts to keep me for just a moment longer, its tentacles creeping into my unconscious, as if asking, "Do I still have a chance to hook you?" And you know what I'd tell you, now? Surviving those 200 meters by myself, on a route on that I'd already climbed, remain the most significant achievement of my climbing career. At night I still hear in my head this challenge: "A little one-on-one now?"
This essay first appeared in Alpinist 57—Spring 2017
as part of Jannu | Kumbhakarna Mountain Profile. Subscribe today or order your own copy in the Alpinist.com store