Russian Odyssey on Jannu

Nineteen days on a Himalayan giant

It is unusual for a mountaineering story to gain posterity if no summit is reached, or it lacks in full-blown gripping drama. This spring on Mount Jannu (7710 m, Nepal), the Odyssey led by two Russians, Nilov and Golovchenko, reached an epic scale. During nineteen days at high altitude, the strength and determination they displayed went hand in hand with discretion and simplicity. A breath-taking record of this epic climb from one side to the other of a Himalayan giant.

On April 2, by mid-afternoon the news had reached us : In Russia, Poland, France and Italy, we were many to raise our vodka glasses to toast the return of Sergey Nilov (aged 42) and Dmitry Golovchenko (aged 36) to Yamatari base camp. This camp is situated at 4 850 m, at the foot of Mount Jannu South face.

Nineteen days ago these two strong Himalaya climbers left their base camp at 4800 m, on the Yalung glacier, at the foot of the East face. During nineteen days, all in alpine style, they opened a new route at the upper Eastern wall, connecting to the South side via the South-Eastern ridge at an altitude of 7 400 m. They then followed the original 1962 French route (leaving out the summit). On Yamatari glacier, April 2, at about noon, here Nilov and Golovchenko are reunited with the Polish documentary maker Eliza Kubarska, Sherpa Pasang, and possibly the Polish Zofia Morus, who had trekked to meet them with tents and provisions. Kubarska and Morus, and the renowned Polish Himalaya climber Marcin Tomaszewski , have followed the expedition. Kuburska and Morus are making a film about the Jannu region, its inhabitants and traditions, as well as filming the expedition. On Yamatari glacier Tomaszewski is absent. He was due to take part in the adventure. However, for reasons still unknown, on 23 March he was flown to Kathmandu. Kubarska, Pasang and Morus reached Yamatari glacier on April 1st. After a long trek starting at the foot of the East face, they circled Jannu in order to assist and join the roped team during the way down. This explains why on March 28 radio contact with the climbers was momentarily interrupted. On that day, they made their push from the Eastern slope towards the Southern slope (more on that later).

For our part, it is Marcin Tomaszewski who in a steady voice confirms the safe return of the climbers:
“Hello Manu, we are very happy that everything is good ! It was a long and risky adventure. Best
regards and thank you. Marcin”. Na Zdrowia, Marcin.

Dmitry Golovchenko ©DR

Sergey Nilov ©DR

Nilov and Golovchenko are basically ok

Nilov and Golovchenko left their 18 th bivouac behind, at an altitude of 5 880 m. When they level 5550m, a sudden snowfall reduces visibility. They pause for a while. This shows patience and lucidity. They then continue down the Jeunes glacier, following the original French route. This route was opened in April 1962 by Lionel Terray, Robert Paragot, Paul Keller, René Desmaison, Jean Ravier, Sherpas Gyalzen, Wangdi and others. The arrival on Yamatari glacier marks the end of Nilov’s and Golobvchenko’s Jannu Odyssey. Behind them are the last obstacles, such as deathly and numerous crevasses on the Jeunes glacier. Once on Yamatari glacier, the climbers can feel mentally relieved. But what about their physical state? For 20 years, Nilov and Golovchenko have been prominent members of Demchenko, the mountaineering club in Moscow. Victor Gorlov, a colleague of theirs and club member since 2005, has been in charge of tracking the expedition by GPS. He kept in touch with the climbers’ families, who in turn were in contact with the climbers. “Russian men are not really into “telephoning””, Gorlov claims. However, it is revealed that Nilov and Golovchenko suffer “light” frostbite at the extremities. Moreover, both climbers have lost between 9 and 10 Kgs: “bear in mind that under normal circumstances they were “slim””, Gorlov adds. For the moment, on Yamatari glacier, Nilov and Golovchenko can take a break to recover, to eat, drink and rest. Tomorrow the climb down must continue to Ghunsa (3 421 m). It is 9 kms away, the nearest village in the valley, West of Mount Jannu.

Both have lost about 10 kgs – being normally slim

The worst is over at Ghunsa Wednesday April 3, at dawn the group broke up camp on Yamatari, to arrive in Ghunsa at dusk. From here to Kathmandu will take four days’ trekking, a day’s drive by jeep, ending with a short flight. The plan is for the Russians to return to Moscow by plane on April 10. Twenty days have passed since March 15, when the climbers set off up the mountain. It took them 13 days to reach the South-East shoulder at approx. 7 400 m, just 300 m below the summit and six  additional days to climb down the 1962 French route, ending at Yamatari on April 2. In highest Himalaya, such long Odysseys are far and few between. The most recent were those of our two Russians, together with Alexander Lange on Mustagh Tower (7 284 m, Pakistan) : 17 days in August 2012. In that year, the British Sandy Allan and Rick Allen, aged 57 and 59, crossed the famous Nanga Parbat, reaching the summit via the very long Mazeno ridge. For these endeavours the climbers were awarded a “piolet d’or”. Back to the crossing – without summit – on Mount Jannu.

Sergey, Marcin and Dmitry at Ghunsa, march 4th 2019. © Marcin Tomaszewski

French route down on sight ?

Victor Gorlov sent us the Mount Jannu expedition report , issued in Russian by Club Demchenko. The report contains numerous pertinent details. Late on Wednesday 27 March (13 days from base camp and 11 days from the bergschrund, actual point of departure at the East final wall), Nilov and Golovchenko set up bivouac at 7 300 m. They are just a few rope lengths away from the South-East ridge, or the South-East shoulder of Mount Jannu. Here they have difficulty evaluating the distance to the shoulder. At about 7400 m, it holds the exit from the East face. It is probably at this point that Nilov and Golovchenko decide to miss the summit. They must contemplate turning back down. The question is which way. On March 27 is Dmitry’s birthday. According to Max Bonniot (of GMHM, NDLR), here is “a wonderful gift of a “decisional knot” to be solved”. According to Victor Gorlov, Nilov and Golovchenko are “two passionate amateurs of alpine style climbing”. Let us remind readers, this means the total absence of advance camps, fixed ropes, survival lines, porters, as well as no oxygen, an utterly minimalist style. The classic roped-team on La Walker in Grandes Jorasses, and, to some extent, the Meije crossing, fall into this category. Victor is a long-standing close friend of the climbers. He adds that in all probability, the climbers set off with “provisions (and gas) to last 15 days maximum”. It seems that at origin, the plan was to use “the same route down as up, or to use the North-East ridge to get back from the summit. But we need to ask them in order to be sure.” Here I am certain our readers will understand that no such contact was undertaken : the climbers must limit their efforts to stay in touch with their families. Anna Piunova, chief editor of Mountain.ru, and one of the expedition relays emphasizes that “those two guys are not at all close to the media”.

Nilov and Golovchenko reach the South-East shoulder. Here, late in the day on March 27, or possibly on March 28, they finally decide to use the French route down the South side. But to what extent are they familiar with this route ? – A “long Alpine TD”, according to British Himalayan “Alpine” climber Alan Rouse. With his compatriots Brian Hall, Rab Carrington and Roger Baxter-Jones, he achieved the route Alpine style, the roundtrip in 7 days (3 days down) in October 1978. In 1962, the French expedition encountered enormous difficulties, it was the third attempt and the one successful. Moreover, in 2008, thirty years after his climb with Rouse, Hall, and Baxter-Jones, Rab Carrington admitted that they had had to face “no margin of error possible”, that down-climbing was “the sole successful (or would-be fatal) way. Working out the itinerary proved extremely complicated, (…), and any deterioration of the weather would have been disastrous. We were lucky.” On March 27, the weatherforecast was average. A snowfall (50 cms +) the day before caused Nilov and Golovchenko to slow down, even to stop for a while.

East face of Jannu. ©Marcin Tomaszewski/infography Manu Rivaud

NILOV ET GOLOVCHENKO are two passionate alpine style enthusiastics

French route from 1962, upper part. ©DR

French route from 1962, lower part. ©DR

Tle long descent of the South face, step by step. ©Gregory Glazek/Infography Manu Rivaud

Help from Poland and France

On Thursday, March 28, the climbers’ GPS signal showed that they are following the French route
down, after crossing the South-East ridge or the South-East shoulder at 7400 m. At this point, radio
contact with Eliza Kubarska’s group is momentarily broken off. The latter is moving toward Yamatari
Glacier by circling the mountain. The weather is brilliant, but snow is forecast. In the evening, the
GPS shows the roped duo to be at just 7310 m on the South side.
We watch this drama unfold. Thereupon, in the night, your humble reporter, together with Claude
Gardien (journalist, ex-editor of Vertical, and well-versed contributor to Alpine Mag), transmit the
details of the French route to Marcin Tomaszewski and to Anna Piunova. This includes extracts from
the book “Himalaya Alpine-Style”(1995), mountaineering bible par excellence, edited by the British
Andy Fanshawe and Steve Venables. We add photos of the original French itinerary limited to an
altitude of approximately 5900 m, with indicative tracings, camps, crucial spots, such as upper
Throne glacier, Dentelle ridge, and Butoir.
In Poland, Grzegorz Glazek, of the site wspinanie.pl, in turn transmits a detailed graph covering the
full length of the French route. It includes other crucial points, such as the Col des Jeunes at 6050 m.
On Friday, March 29, at 3:30 am, Marcin Tomaszewski confirms reception of our documents: “Hello
Manu, thank you for the information. Now we do not have contact with the guys. However, we try to
give them these info. Regards”.
Let’s be clear, at present, we do not know whether additional information was provided by third
parties. Nor is it clear to what extent our information reached the climbers, or was used by them.
The fact is that in Russia, preparations were started for rescue by helicopter. However, there is no
sign of distress from the climbers. Stand by.

The last five days

Late on Friday, March 29, the GPS shows Nilov and Golovchenko to bivouac at an altitude of 6995 m, under the upper rimaye of the upper Throne glacier. More snow is forecast for the next day. Saturday, March 30, 16 th day – Nilov and Golovchenko manage to cross over the upper Throne glacier, to set up camp at about 6510 m. They are under the top of the Dentelle ridge in the direction of Butoir. They have run out of food, and gas is running low. Sunday, March 31 : progression is slow and difficult through thick snow. Late on that day, Nilov and Golovchenko manage a 16 th bivouac at approx. 6330 m, under Butoir summit.

On April 1 st , the roped duo has difficulty finding Col des Jeunes, the famous gateway to the icy slopes of both Jeunes and Providence glaciers. These in turn are gateways to Yamatari glacier. Nilov and Golovchenko do finally find the passage. Surprisingly quickly they manage to find a suitable spot to set up a bivouac at 5880 m. Visibility is mediocre, the duo chooses to wait for better weather in order to continue via the labyrinth of crevasses which must be crossed to reach Yamatari. Eliza Kubarska, Sherpa Pasang and (maybe) Zofia Morus have meanwhile reached Yamatari glacier at 4850 m. They are now waiting. April 2 nd , the circle is complete : Nilov and Golovchenko have successfully achieved the improbable, the incredible journey on Kumbhakarna – Nepalese name for Mount Jannu.

South Face of Jannu. ©phrrk/flickr2017 – Infography Manu Rivaud

The delicate task of history

In Moscow, Victor Gorlov is brimming with happiness, and so are many others, us included. How the hell did these two guys, Sergey and Dmitry, manage to stay lucid and avoid serious injury? Victor’s answer is that “they know how to live and how to survive in such very high mountains ; how to achieve what they want ; what they must do to achieve it”. In brief, Russian lucidity and strength. Maybe, sometime in future, Sergey Nilov and Dmitry Golovchenko will tell us. Actually, this morning the great Reinhold Messner (awarded a piolet d’or (like Walter Bonatti) for his mountaineering life’s work) made a statement concerning the Russian Jannu Odyssey. Here, to end this article, are Messner’s words as published in the famous Italian daily “Gazzetta della Sport”: “On Mount Jannu, Dmitry Golovchenko and Sergey Nilov succeded in Alpine style to climb up the East face, a most difficult task. Day after day they progressed upwards, with no advance camps, no fixed ropes, at the mercy of the weather. In this case, leaving out Mount Jannu summit is of secondary importance. What matters here is the exceptional character of the endavour, which merits the award of a “piolet d’or” for exceptional performance. They spent 18 days (in fact 19, NDLR) on the mountain, the last five on the route down. It would also have been extremely difficult to use the 1962 French route down, as it was unknown to them at the start. The trail is long, and very tricky in numerous places. Bravo”. Here we add : “Congratulations Sergey ; Congratulations Dmitry. Take a good rest now.”

Note: According to Rodolphe Popier, of Himalayan Database, it is most certainly the first Mount Jannu crossing, bearing in mind that the climbers left out the summit, and did not use the ridges up and down.

Alpine Mag wishes to thank Federico Bernardi (Montagna magica), Victor Gorlov (Club alpin Demchenko Moscow), Anna Piunova (chief redactor of  Mountain.ru) and Hélène Seppain (russian translator)

Translated from french by Hélène Seppain.