Stéphane Benoist: the south face of Annapurna and the importance of a climbing partnership
Interview with French alpinist Stéphane Benoist after the recent, epic ascent of the South Face of Annapurna carried out together with Yannick Graziani.
We had been worried about them. About Stéphane Benoist and Yannick Graziani, the two French mountaineers who in mid-October and on the immense south face of Annapurna made the first repeat of the route initially forged by Jean-Christophe Lafaille and Pierre Beghin in 1992, and completed on 9 October this year by Switzerland's Ueli Steck. For ten long days we held our breath and then, on 29 October, confirmation finally reached us of their summit, of the difficult descent, subsequent helicopter evacuation and, unfortunately, Benoist's severe frostbite. Thanks to the precious collaboration with Claude Gardien, Editor-in-chief of Vertical Magazine, we can now provide some insight into their ascent which is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful stories to come from the Himalayas in recent months.
It is important to remember that at the start of October Ueli Steck climbed the same face and the same route in 28 hours, including the descent, and that Steck himself told us how at the time the mountain was in truly exceptional conditions. Having said that, it is equally important to remember and underline that alpinism is based on absolutely unique events; every ascent is unique, every climb has its own particular story. And it is for this reason that every action, every choice made in mountaineering become something both unrepeatable and, at the same time, fascinating.
What emerges from the interview with Stéphane Benoist is a great and epic story of alpinism; the two resisted and survived for 10 days on the difficult, extraordinary and impressive South Face of Annapurna thanks to their climbing ability, their friendship and the strength of nothing less than a great climbing partnership.
INTERVIEW WITH STEPHANE BENOIST AFTER ANNAPURNA SOUTH FACE
Stéphane, First of all, how are you doing?
I'm fine, my morale is high. Time is passing slowly, because of the frostbite, we're waiting to see how the necrosis evolves so that the live parts can regenerate as best possible before the operation. I'm a bit tired of having all these disgusting black things at the end of my fingers. I still have to wait 15 days. But on the other hand I am so glad of what we did! It's a high price to pay. But it's part of the game.
Can you tell us about the great adventure up the South Face of Annapurna?
Personally, I preferred the Japanese spur. It is a beautiful alpine line that leads straight to the central summit, a little lower than the main summit. Yannick was inclined to go for the Beghin – Lafaille route. This too is a beautiful line and in a sense it is more "Himalayan" because it leads to the highest point. On the upper section of the Japanese spur a band of black shale was very dry, there was little ice. The Beghin - Lafaille route seemed more feasible. We started up the Japanese spur because we knew we would find a safe bivouac site, sheltered from falling rocks and avalanches, thank to our attempt in 2010. We started late, it was hot. We had some rockfalls but we managed nevertheless. We knew we would find this bivy and that there would be enough snow to dig a terrace. But we had set off up the Beghin – Lafaille.
Can you provide us with some ascent details?
Day 1, October 17 - Departure from Advanced Base Camp (5000m), crossing the bergschrund (5750m), very good sheltered bivy at 6050m.
Day 2 – We ascended up to 6700m, bivouac in an ice flute, the same as in 2010. Bad weather reached us, we remained here for days 3 and 4, so three nights in total. We would have liked to rest for a day, but this stop was really tiring. Yet we were in better shape than in 2010. And when the storm finally stopped, we had an exceptional weather window. We had some beautiful sunsets. In 2010 we'd only had two...
Day 5 – We set off at night, very early. I wore all my clothes, because it was very cold. Within the tent, in the sleeping bags it was OK, but outside the cold started to bite. We made a large diagonal crossing to reach the base of the headwall. It seemed faster than expected and we got there at about mid- day. We pitched the route, gaining approximately 70 metres per hour. We're not as good as Ueli, it has to be said... We came across good ice, even over 7000. I had never encountered these conditions this high. We climbed 4 difficult pitches, the hardest was the third, I then had to haul up my rucksack, the pitch took between one and half to two hours. Yannick, with a rucksack on his back and seconding, had trouble with this section. It must by M6. M5+ in Cham, but up there... (he laughs). We arrived at a small slab of ice. We saw another one 30m lower down, thicker. So we abseiled down to this and managed to hack a small ledge our buttocks. An alpine bivouac... we used the tent as a blanket. We were at circa 7200, 7250 metres. We weren't cold. When resting I respond well to altitude and slept well. Yannick was perhaps less comfortable than I was.
Day 6 – We started by ascending the fixed rope. It was bloody boring. The weather forecast was excellent. And whenever it was forecast incorrectly, it turned out even better than expected! Moreover, we had three days of "summit day" weather. On day 6 we advanced 150m up the steep but discontinuous ice. Yannick led a grade 5 ice pitch. At around 7300m we came across an old rigid Friend. The other two had climbed up to here, at least... We didn't set off early that morning since we wanted to wait for the sun. During the day we opened our down jackets and climbed without sleeves. We even managed to climb without gloves. We found a snowy site to pitch the tent. And it's there, no doubt about it, that Yannick lost his headtorch, at the bivy.
Day 7 - I started by making a route error that cost me a lot of energy and time: an hour, an hour and a half instead of just 10 minutes... 4 or 5 pitches separated us from the top of the headwall, the angle eased off a little, it resembled classic north face terrain like we have at home, with a M4+/M5 section at the end, at about 7500m. We climbed another two pitches and found a good bivy spot.
Day 8 – Early morning start. We were "dazed" by the altitude and cold, was had turned around and around all night in our tent. Yannick is usually the fastest, but that morning I was ready first. We took just one rucksack for the two of us and some rope. Yannick, still on slightly better form than me, caught up with me. Then he had to descend to the tent to get his gloves. I waited, we were perhaps 150m below the summit. The terrain was roughly PD/AD, ideal for making a false step and falling. We climbed carefully, Yannick wanted us to rope up. Perhaps he was feeling the fatigue from having had to descend for the gloves, our rhythm became irregular. I am methodical at altitude: I've read Messner's books and climb just like him: I count my steps, I recover my breath, and set off again. Like a steamroller. I beat the trail to about 50 or 70 metres below the summit, and then I exploded. K.O. Yannick overtook me, I failed to follow. On the top, a small steep bump (60°) is equipped with fixed ropes. There were two generations of ropes: this was the top of the Bonington route. At 11:00 we reached the summit. It's a bizarre summit, an arête of horizontal snow with three bumps so we don't know which is the highest. We ascended the first two and spent 20 minutes up there. It was Yannick's birthday, his 40th. Yannick tied me in for the start of the descent, when it became easier we untied. We both had the sensation as if something was there with us. Yannick even spoke to someone. He descended in front of me. We reached our bivy at nightfall. That night was hell. We were at 7550, 7650 m, higher than we thought. I needed to rest. Yannick wanted us to descend that night, but the headtorch ran out of batteries.
Day 9 - The sun reached us right away. We set off, not at all rested. Yannick set up the abseils. We searched for the ice to make the Abalakov threads. We stopped at the end of the day, a little below the rock band, at circa 6700m, we melted snow and rested for an hour. Night fell, we had no headtorch... It was beautiful, the moon rose, we could try and continue. I was exhausted. I had a lung infection, but I didn't know it. I couldn't understand what was happening to me. I was fairly lucid. I didn't have the symptoms of an edema. We used the light of the stove as Yannick prepared the abseils, and descend to 6050m at 3:00am.
Day 10 – We set off again when the sun reached us. Yannick did everything, I was completely spent, he even took part of my load. The terrain was AD, we abseiled off. I needed to concentrate to not loose my balance and fall.Yannick managed to call for a helicopter rescue. We slid over the Bergschrund. We had to jump over a second, higher Bergschrund. This was circa 3 or 4m high, Yannick's ribs hurt. I searched around to find a section that was slightly lower, but the ice was hard. We used our longest piece of rope, tied in with all that remained of our slings and straps to cross the glacier. Then I told Yannick to go ahead to Advanced Base Camp. He found it before nightfall and I followed his footsteps. He prepared hot drinks, fetched water, took care of everything.
It's easy to comprehend that the physical and psychological difficulties, due to being on that face for such a long time, must have been immense. What gave you the strength to resist and continue for so many days?
I think it was our determination. And the climbing partnership. With Yannick I've not formed a similar partnership as with Patrice Glairon-Rappaz. But we've known each other for ages, ever since we were young. He's very direct and sometimes difficult. But he is incredibly experience and has an amazing survival instinct. I decided to let him make the decisions and I don't regret this. That doesn't prevent us though from sharing and discussing things.
What was the hardest bit? And did you ever think you might not succeed?
The hardest part was the descent. It was a test. Each abseil was a real test. We doubted all the time. It was so unbelievable to be on such a face that we knew failure was possible at any time. Had we had a problem, then we'd have been ready to descend at any moment, but we were under the illusion that everything was going well. I slept well, I was under the illusion that I was recovering. But there is no certainty until you finally set foot on the summit. During the last 200 meters you're drawn in by the summit. This is the area of a fatal attraction. You've been climbing for eight days and you don't want to let this go.
Yours sounds like a truly "epic" story of alpinism, during which your climbing partnership managed to deal with great moments of difficulty together.
I believe more and more in climbing partnerships. A partnership, if it works well, isn't 1 +1 = 2, it equates to 2.5 or 3. Something special is created. Our partnership worked perfectly. What also allowed us to succeed is our experience. This was Yannick's third 8000er, while in 2008 I climbed the South face of Nuptse with Patrice Glairon-Rappaz. And we both have climbed many technically difficult routes between 6 and 7000 m. We've learnt a lot. First of all about partnerships. And we have also realised what it means to experience illusion. We thought everything was fine, but we were at the limit.
Why did it take so long for news to filter through?
We knew that the descent would take a long time. We didn't want to waste the batteries of our phone, and we even kept them warm under our clothes. We were too busy to make calls!
What do you think about Ueli Steck's extremely fast ascent?
It's revolutionary. But I expected it. Just look at his career in the Alps. When we met in Kathmandu I felt he was ready to do something exceptional. I had also seen at a conference and I understood his approach, his structured approach to his training. And the McIntyre route on the Grandes Jorasses in 2 hours 21, had astounded me.
After "your" South Face of Annapurna, has your way of interpreting alpinism changed and, if yes, how? And what is alpinism for you?
For me this marks a new chapter. And this would also be the case even if I didn't have frostbite. This is my greatest achievement. As regards mountaineering in general, it doesn't change anything. This route is in line with what I have always wanted to do: higher and higher routes, and always technical. I was not attracted by the ordinary routes. It takes a lot of time to reach the necessary maturity. Alpinism is a big part of my life. I've built myself around it. And it's not finished yet. Alpinism has given me a great deal: reflection, enjoyment, emotions, suffering, too, and even more excitement. A climbing partnership is important, I've become who I am in mountaineering thanks to my climbing partners. I love spending time in the mountains, it is a complete break from the routine of everyday life