Annapurna I - South Face Direct - 2013
Ueli Steck, climbing solo, has made the first ascent of the South Face Direct on Annapurna, in the Nepal Himalaya
Annapurna I ( 8091m )
First ascent of South Face Direct
9 October 2013
Climbed by Ueli Steck
Other members of the expedition: Don Bowie
Joint winner of the Piolets d'Or 2014
Ueli Steck has made the first ascent, solo, of the South Face Direct on Annapurna. He and Don Bowie had at first planned to make the ascent together, but Bowie felt that the unroped climbing that would be needed for their intended fast ascent was too technically demanding.
Bowie and Steck had previously visited Shishpangma together in 2011, which led to Steck's ultra-fast solo ascent of the mountain. Eighteen days later both of them reached the summit of Cho Oyu.
On this year's expedition the two climbers were accompanied at the base of Annapurna's south face by film-maker Jonah Matthewson, photographers Dan and Janine Patitucci and Nepali climber Tenji. Tenji had climbed Everest with Ueli Steck in 2012.
Steck's route on Annapurna takes a depression between the pillar followed by the original 1970 British route up the South Face to the main summit (8091m), and the pillar to the right taken by the 1981 Japanese route, which finishes on the slightly lower middle summit (8061m). The line is vulnerable to spindrift and avalanches in bad weather, so good timing and a fast ascent are essential.
The team established an advanced base camp near the foot of wall, at around 5000m, at the end of September. After a few days acclimatising, Ueli Steck and Dan Bowie climbed up the bottom part of the wall and pitched a tent (Camp I) on a ledge at about 6100m. They spent two nights there to acclimatise. While there, they noticed considerable rockfall on the face above (the campsite itself was relatively sheltered from rockfall).
"I felt that the extremely mild temperatures would have to drop significantly for the face to solidify into safer condition." - Don Bowie
On the second morning they took the tent down, left a cache of equipment, and went down to base camp to await favourable conditions.
Don Bowie was by this time beginning to feel that the long section from Camp I to the headwall was steeper and more sustained than he was willing to tackle unroped, which their strategy for the climb would require. But he agreed to have "one more look" before reaching a decision.
On 6 October Ueli Steck and Dan Bowie moved back up to advanced base camp, along with Dan and Janine Patitucci and Jonah Matthewson. On 8 Oct Steck and Bowie set off towards the face, still accompanied by Dan Patitucci and Jonah Matthewson. Bowie made his decision - he was not willing climb unroped above Camp I and would not attempt the face. So Steck continued alone.
He climbed past the gear cache at Camp I (collecting the tent and stove) and reached the base of the headwall late in the afternoon. By this time the wind had sprung up and spindrift was streaming over the face, visible to the team on the glacier below as well as to Steck.
"I knew that if the winds remained as they were near the summit- perhaps 70-80 km/h or more- there was no way he would be able to reach the top." - Dan Bowie
Steck found a crevasse, pitched his tent in its shelter, and waited to see whether it would be possible to continue. The sun went down, and the wind stopped - a phenomenon he had noticed from advanced base camp the previous evening. So he concluded that the way to reach the summit was at night. There was a gleaming line of ice and snow runnels up the headwall - probably an exceptional state of affairs - making an ascent of this section in the dark a feasible proposition.
Before night fell, Steck took a photo of the headwall to guide him in the darkness. Spindrift caught him while he doing this. Grabbing his ice tools, he dropped the camera and one of his down gloves.
About an hour after reaching the bivouac, he set off up the headwall, climbing in undergloves and swapping his one down glove from hand to hand, as required.
"During short passages the ice/firn was quite thin and a couple of times I had to climb in the rock. The steepness was surprisingly not really vertical, only a couple of uplifts were vertical." - Ueli Steck
Above the headwall, it was just "a beat against the wind."
"When I reached the summit ridge I could hardly believe it. It was night, the sky full of stars and the ridge going down in front of me. With my altimeter I checked everything very carefully, I followed the ridge and I knew: I was on highest point." - Ueli Steck
After a few minutes on the summit he set off back down the line he had climbed up, down-climbing with just a few abseils on the headwall. He reached the glacier 28 hours after setting off up the face.
The South Face Direct was first attempted in 1992 by Pierre Béghin and Christophe Lafaille. Having overcome the main difficulties of the route, they were forced by bad weather to descend from the top of the headwall. Béghin fell to his death, taking the rope and much of the climbing gear with him, when an abseil anchor pulled. Lafaille completed an epic descent, suffering a broken arm due to rockfall.
A South Korean team attempted the route in 2010, but turned back at around 6100m due to bad weather. Koreans Park Young-seok, Shin Dong-min and Kang Ki-seok made another attempt in 2011, but bad weather and rockfall turned them back at about 6400m. The three climbers disappeared during the descent.
Ueli Steck made a solo attempt on the route in 2007, but abandoned his expedition after being being struck by a rock on the lower part of the face. He and Simon Anthamatten made another attempt in 2008, but were turned back by bad weather at about 5900m. Meanwhile, Basque climber Inaki Ochoa de Olza fell ill - apparently with brain damage and pulmonary oedema - high on the east ridge of Annapurna. Steck attempted a rescue and reached the Basque camp at 7400m, but in the end Ochoa died. Steck and Anthamatten made no further attempt on the south face that season.
Ueli Steck's smooth ascent this year, besides being an astounding achievement, looks like a hint that for this kind or route, a radical approach may be the right one.
Earlier this year Ueli Steck, along with Simone Moro and Jonathan Griffith, was the the victim of a violent attack by a large group of Sherpas at a campsite in the Western Cwm of Everest.
© Himalaya Masala 2013. All rights reserved.
Annapurna South Face, showing Ueli Steck's route (solid line), 1970 British route to its left, 1981 Japanese route to its rightWikimedia
More about this ascent
Annapurna I in the Ascent Book
First ascent of Annapurna I
Annapurna I, Nepal
N 28° 35′ 44.4336″ W 83° 49′ 13.9224″