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Athletes

Aug 29, 2017

Pearson, Wright and Hirayama Go Chossaneering in the Faroe Islands

Most climbers have a visceral dislike for “choss,” or loose, dangerous and dirty rock.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

But British climber James Pearson has such an affinity for it, that he recruited a team of two other world-renowned climbers to make the first ascent of one of the world’s tallest sea cliffs, in the Faroe Islands, and what was sure to be one of the chossiest, sketchiest and most bizarre climbs any of them had ever done.

While many cutting-edge climbing expeditions, like those planned by Mike Libecki, trace their beginnings to high-tech satellite imagery or whispered stories of far off places, others have more modest origin stories.

“Sometimes you hear about a cool new place through the grapevine; sometimes you stumble on to random info from people,” British climber James Pearson explains. “But sometimes, you just go on Google and start searching.” And that’s how he first discovered the untold climbing potential in the Faroe Islands. “I was reading some list of the craziest rock formations, and the Faroe Islands popped up for having one of the biggest sea cliffs in the world,” he says.

And best of all, it had never been climbed.

A cairn and the sea in the Faroe Islands. Photo: Cedar Wright.

The Faroe Islands are a part of the Kingdom of Denmark. There are 18 larger islands in the archipelago and heaps of other islets and sea stacks. Over the centuries, the islands developed an agrarian culture unique from mainland Europe. The inhabitants all learn Faroese as their first language growing up. In many ways, it seems a land apart from the the continent it is a part of.

The British troops stationed on the Faroe Islands during World War II called it the “Land of Maybe,” due to the mercurial weather that frequently stalled or delayed plans. The mists and fog that blanket the islands daily make the sea cliffs appear ghostly and phantom-like when they emerge from the clouds.

The largest cliff, Cape Enniberg, plummets 754 meters from its highest point, and that was the one that Pearson wanted to scale. It’s allure for Pearson lay not only in its immensity, but in his own personal penchant for “choss climbing,” as he puts it.

The 754-meter tall Cape Enniberg. Photo: Cedar Wright.

“In the UK trad climbing scene, climbing on crappy, chossy cliffs once or twice a year is just something we do. It’s a fun way to get away, do something different and see beautiful parts of the country. But since moving to France, I’ve done much less of it. The French only climb on the very best rock because they have so much of it.”

Pearson recruited two good friends and fellow The North Face (TNF) sponsored-athletes to join him and Caroline Ciavaldini, his wife and also a TNF athlete. (Ciavaldini had already decided that she wanted no part of Enniberg’s loose blocks, but would participate in the rest of the expedition.)  First up was Yuji Hirayama, the legendary Japanese climber whose resume includes setting the speed record on The Nose with Hans Florine on multiple occasions, and being the first person to onsight an 8c (5.14b). “Yuji was a really obvious choice,” Pearson says. “He’s an incredible climber, but he’s also calm and calculated”―a not-to-be-undervalued quality what with the intrinsic dangers that Enniberg promised.

Next was Cedar Wright, an American choss master and jester in even the most unpleasant of climbing situations. “I figured regardless of what difficulties we might find on the route, if it was dangerous or if it was sketchy or crazy, Cedar would be the guy,” Pearson says.

When they all arrived in the Faroe Islands, they set about recceing Cape Enniberg and espied an obvious direttissima: a central prow splitting two overhanging faces. After unforeseen access issues left their Enniberg assault in limbo for several days, they learned they had gotten the greenlight at 6 pm one night. Their sources indicated a 24-hour weather window, so even though Pearson says they “weren’t sure if it was a great idea,” they geared up, set off sailing for the bottom of the cliff at 8 pm, landed at 9 and started climbing at 10 in the evening.

Racking up at the bottom, Pearson had a moment of doubt: “Some really heavy questions of what we were doing there came into my head. The rock we were going to climb―this kind of basalt―looked like a jenga tower of boulders. I realized how horrendous and dangerous it might be. So I felt awkward putting two close friends in a risky situation like that.”

But Wright and Hirayama were there by their own accord and psyched to get into it. “Them being there kind of pushed me on at the same time,” Pearson says.

Wright drew the first harrowing lead. “Cedar spent an hour climbing up the first kitty-litter pitch with grass tufts every now and again,” Pearson describes. “At one point he was probably 40 meters runout: he definitely would have died if he fell off. He was mantling on these loosely attached grass tufts. We immediately realized it was going to be more serious that we thought.

“When me and Yuji got up to the belay, we all looked at each other like, ‘This is fucked,” Pearson says.

Yuji Hirayama and James Pearson following Cedar Wright on one of the early pitches of Cape Enniberg. Photo: Cedar Wright.

Yuji drew the second pitch, which involved rounding a corner into a gulley of loose blocks. He climbed slowly, shouting descriptions of his progress and the nightmarish rock down to Wright and Pearson. At one point, little pebbles began raining down on Wright’s head, which he and Pearson could only hope didn’t portend larger debris. Finally, Yuji set a belay and brought them up. Pearson says, “Yuji crushed it. There was so much scary stuff on that pitch.”

The next couple hundred meters were more of the same. No less serious, but somewhat quicker, at least. They didn’t encounter any particularly difficult climbing, just lots and lots and lots of choss. “It’s amazing we didn’t injure ourselves,” Pearson says.

James Pearson setting off on a lead mid-way up the cliff of Cape Enniberg. Photo: Cedar Wright.

The second half of the climb turned into a different kind of adventure altogether. 400 meters of soaking-wet, grass-covered slabs, separated by exfoliating rock bands, lay between the guys and the top. They started simul-climbing but abandoned that strategy when they realized how insecure the slimy basalt bands were.

Just as Pearson had counted on happening in such an unsettling situation, Wright took the sharp end and quested off. Pearson remembers him yelling, “Dude, you won’t believe it. I found a path.”

They had stumbled on what Pearson describes as a “poor man’s via ferrata,” a rickety system of old ropes and pieces of wood that had been hammered into the cliffside.

As unexpected as the path was, it didn’t match their surprise in running into a bunch of sheep. “Every bit of usable land in the Faroe Islands is used,” Pearson explains. “They put sheep anywhere they can, and they save the best, hardest-to-get-to places for these special rams that sell for more. These crazy places on top of the cliffs that no other animals can get to except birds, they end up with these jungle-esque plants that are really good for the rams and make their meat taste really good, apparently. So there were fricking sheep up there!”

For six hours, Pearson, Wright and Hirayama zig-zagged their way up the terraced grassy slabs and rock bands. “We’d go left and right, back-and-forth until we could go up a bit. Like a labyrinth. I’ve never done something so weird,” Pearson says. “You couldn’t really call it climbing, but it was still really hard, super physical and super terrifying.”

At one point on the grassy slabs, Cedar Wright was about ten meters from the belay and mantling onto a ledge. Pearson and Hirayaa could see grass falling off. And then they heard Wright shriek. “But we didn’t see him fall off,” Pearson says. “Then we hear him yell, ‘A bird just puked in my face!’ Me and Yuji started cracking up, meanwhile Cedar is yelling ‘It’s not funny.’

“That sort of sums up the whole experience: cold, crazy, funny, stinky, hard and scary,” Pearson says.

15 hours after leaving the base, they finally reached the summit. Caroline Ciavaldini, filmmaker Will Laschelles, a contact from the local tourist office, and some local Faroese met them at the top. Pearson says, “They were all psyched, gave us hugs, thought we were superheroes. They brought up bottles of gin that we all drank.”

From left to right: Yuji Hirayama, Cedar Wright, James Pearson. Photo: Cedar Wright.

Reflecting on Enniberg a month after the climb, Pearson says, “There’s no part of it that would make for a good regular climbing trip. But I loved every minute of it.”

In the remainder of their time in the Faroe Islands, James, Cedar, Yuji and Caroline each put up a new climb, all in the 5.12 range, on a smaller sea cliff of good-quality stone in an area called Floating Lake. “We hoped that by developing routes we could give local climbers something to aim for and get them towards the more adventurous climbs,” Pearson says.

“The Faroe Islands will never be a destination for everyday climbers from around the world, but there are definitely adventures to be had.”

Feeling inspired? Want to have a climbing adventure of your own? Check out The Outdoor Voyage and book your next trip.

James Pearson on the first ascent of one of the routes they put up in the Floating Lake area later in the trip. Photo: Will Laschelles.

Feature Image: Sea stacks in the Faroe Islands. Pearson, Hirayama, Wright and Ciavaldini split into two teams at the end of the trip, climbed two towers, and set up a Tyrolean traverse between them. Photo: Will Laschelles.

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Expeditions

Oct 17, 2018

Update: Nine Climbers Die at Gurja Base Camp. What Really Happened? The Experts’ Opinion

Many media outlets from around the world have offered explanations. But there has been confusion, and a serious lack of understanding on what happened to the nine climbers on Friday morning.

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WRITTEN BY

The Outdoor Journal

In the early hours of Friday morning, five South Koreans and four Nepali guides died during a violent snowstorm. It was the deadliest accident in Nepal’s climbing community since 2015, and those that passed away included decorated Korean team leader Kim Chang-ho. Whilst everyone agreed on the scene of total destruction, there has been much disparity and confusion with regards to an explanation. Media outlets offered varied and often conflicting hypotheses, as presented in our article: 9 Climbers Die at Gurja Base Camp: What We Know So Far.

The Outdoor Journal has since reached out to Global Rescue (the first on the scene) the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC), The National Avalanche Center, the climbing community within Nepal, and many local avalanche or safety bodies from around the world. Our goal was to establish exactly what might have caused the devastation at Gurja Base Camp.

THE TIMELINE

The below information is courtesy of Global Rescue, a US-based emergency assistance group and the first on the scene at Gurja Base Camp. They spoke to The Outdoor Journal to offer a first hand account.

On Friday 12 Oct 2018  at 0555hours, Global Rescue was notified by Trekking Camp Nepal of an accident involving Global Rescue members on Gurja in Nepal.

It appeared that an avalanche during a high wind snow storm swept the entire climbing party and staff down the mountain from its basecamp. A helicopter flyover later located the mortal remains of missing climbers and expedition staff by air.  Total: 5 Koreans (4 had Global Rescue coverage) and 4 Nepalese. The mortal remains of climbers and expedition staff were reported to be scattered in a 400-500m radius.  There was significant debris in base camp area.

Global Rescue deployed personnel to Kathmandu on Saturday, 13 Oct 2018 to coordinate logistics with Nepal and South Korean governments, embassies and families of the Global Rescue members. On Sunday, Oct 14 2018, helicopters using longline rescues retrieved the remains of all nine, transporting them first to Pokhara then to Kathmandu. The remains of the South Korean climbers departed Kathmandu for Seoul the evening of 16 Oct 2018.  The Minister of Tourism conducted a ceremony at which Global Rescue was present prior to departure.

THE SCENE AT BASE CAMP

All eye witnesses were in agreement. Helicopter pilot Siddartha Gurung told AFP: “Everything is gone, all the tents are blown apart”. Dan Richards, the CEO of Global Rescue, said that “Base camp looks like a bomb went off” and “at this point we don’t understand how this happened. You don’t usually get those sorts of extreme winds at that altitude and base camps are normally chosen because they are safe places”.

It’s at this point that many stories that can be found online deviate from one another.

CAN WE DISCOUNT A LANDSLIDE?

When the news of this tragedy first broke, The Himalayan Times were the first to report “at least nine climbers including five Korean nationals were killed when a massive landslide buried the base camp of Mt Gurja (7,193 metres) on the lap of the south face of Mt Dhaulagiri in western Nepal”.

However, Bruce Raup a Senior Associate Scientist Senior Associate Scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) told The Outdoor Journal that a “landslide (a large displacement if rock and soil) seems unlikely to me because it was likely frozen in place” and his colleague Richard Armstrong, a Senior Research Scientist at the (NSIDC), explained that “the evidence would be there at the site, rock and other debris mixed in with the camp destruction”.

CAN WE DISCOUNT AN AVALANCHE?

The Kathmandu Post reported that upon arriving at the camp, Nepali climbing guide Lakma Sherpa said “When a team of locals reached the site, it was clear immediately that the camp was hit by snowstorm” and that “officials suspect that a massive avalanche on the mountain may have triggered the snowstorm.” Meanwhile, Shailesh Thapa Kshetri, a police spokesman in Nepal, told the New York Times that it was unlikely that an avalanche had struck the team, because the bodies were not buried.

However, when The Outdoor Journal reached out to the NSIDC for comment, Richard Armstrong couldn’t discount an avalanche. Whilst Shailesh Thapa Kshetri pointed out that the bodies had not been buried, “that would still be the case with a dry snow powder avalanche. Not that much mass of snow collecting along the path of the avalanche, but significant destruction due to the air blast resulting from air being displaced by the powder cloud, which would have a density greater than “clean” air”.

AN ‘AIR BLAST’?

Of all the many accounts that have been suggested until now, Suraj Paudyal, a member of the rescue team is believed was closest to the truth. When talking to CNN, Surjah said that “It seems that a serac [a piece of glacial ice broke] and barreled down the couloir [a gully on a mountainside] from the top ridge of the mountain and the gust created the turbulence washing the climbers and staff from their tented camp at the base camp”.

Bruce Raup, a Senior Associate Scientist at the NSIDC, hypothesised that “A snowstorm might have loaded the slopes above them with unstable snow, which then fell catastrophically in an avalanche. Dry snow and ice avalanches are known to push air ahead of them in a sort of shock wave that can pack hurricane force — enough to scatter a camp. Thus, the “air blast” explanation rings true to me, with the understanding that the air blast was caused by a snow avalanche.”

Bruce’s colleague, Richard Armstrong, a Senior Research Scientist, backed this possibility. “In the case of an air blast there would be no such debris (ice and snow), and in many cases like this, very little avalanche debris, actual avalanche snow that is, just the debris of the camp as damaged by the air blast,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of the National Avalanche Center , Simon Trautman, an Avalanche Specialist, explained that “Air blasts are a pressure wave of air that runs beyond the obvious avalanche front (or deposited debris). This phenomenon is associated with avalanche motion, but is only occasionally observed. One theory is that air blasts are generated when free falling avalanche debris compresses air close to the ground, subsequently propelling the air ahead of the debris. While this may, or may not be the physics behind air blasts, we do know that they can be very powerful and destructive.” Simon’s colleague, Dr. Karl Birkeland, Director of the Forest Service National Avalanche Center added “that while air blasts with smaller avalanches are rare, air blasts associated with large avalanches in big mountains are fairly common. A few years ago the base camp at Mount Everest was severely affected by an air blast associated with a large avalanche that was trigged by an earthquake”. The Outdoor Journal reported on this earthquake at the time.

The Colorado Geological Survey clarifies on their website, that “The air blast zone is usually in the vicinity of, but not necessarily continuous with, the lower track or runout zone. In some cases it may even run part way up the slope across the valley from the avalanche path.”

HOW POWERFUL IS AN AIR BLAST?

Bruce Raup of the NSIDC explained that an air Blast could have hurricane force, but could it have caused the devastation found at Gurja base camp? The Colorado Geological Survey explains, “Air blasts from powder avalanches commonly exert a pressure of 100 lb/ft (2) of force (Martinelli, speech November 8, 1973). Pressures of only 20-50 lb/ft (2) are capable of knocking out most windows and doors.“

The Outdoor Journal would like to thank all of those who contributed to this article.

Cover Photo: Charles Ng, Jalja La Pass. Views of Dhaulagiri (8167 m) & Gurja Himal (7193 m)

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