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Climbers

Nov 03, 2017

Hon Hon Hon! French Gang Twirl Their Moustaches While Climbing Nuptse South Face

French alpinists Ben Guigonnet, Fred Degoulet and Hélias Millerioux call themselves Le Gang des Moustaches.

WRITTEN BY

Michael Levy

United by their facial hair, they have climbed all over the world together, and this past October completed their most notable ascent yet: a new route up Nuptse’s ominous South Face.

On an acclimatization run up Cholatse, Ben Guigonnet, Fred Degoulet and Hélias Millerioux managed to lose their satellite phone. It had a GPS tracker. “We were super worried that everyone would think we had died,” Millerioux says. “But I had my cell phone, and we had service at the top of Cholatse, so we were able to call a friend and say ‘We’re not dead!’

“We also asked him to send us a new sat phone.”

Millerioux, Guigonnet and Degoulet are goofballs: the Nico Favresse’s, Sean Villanueva O’Driscoll’s and Will Stanhope’s of the high-altitude alpinism. They christened themselves Le Gang des Moustaches (the Moustache Gang). After opening a difficult new route up an 800-meter face on Siula Chico (6,260 meters) in Peru, during which one of them had a moustache, they simply figured furry upper lips were good luck. On their website, they say they are “obsessed by the weight of their packs and the shape of their moustaches.”

These clowns might not be the ones you’d expect to pull off a history making climb in the Himalaya. But they did. Handily.

Le Gang des Moustaches. Photo: Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.

In mid-October, Le Gang des Moustaches completed a six-day, alpine-style ascent of the South Face of Nuptse (they summited Nuptse II, at 7,742 meters; Nuptse I, the main summit, is 7,861 meters). Though little sister to Everest (8,848 meters) and Lhotse (8,516 meters), Nuptse has captivated climbers for decades with it’s imposing South Face. Their climb was the end of a three-year obsession with the mountain.

In 2014, the Gang was in search of a new objective. Robin Revest, who had joined the trio when they established Looking for the Void (WI6  R M7) on Siula Chico, suggested Nuptse’s South Face. In 2015, two-thirds of the Gang—Guigonnet and Hélias—traveled to the Khumbu to attempt an aesthetic line they had noticed in photos.

But it wasn’t their year. “The face was too dry. Lots of rockfall and icefall. It was a very warm year,” Millerioux says. “We decided not to try the project because it was too dangerous.” Instead they attempted another route up the South Face, the Bonington Route, with fellow alpinists Ueli Steck and Colin Haley. The foursome waged an alpine-style siege, but snowfall and wind forced them to turn around at 6,900 meters.

Nuptse: 1; Moustache Gang: 0. “When we finished in 2015, we said, ‘We have to come back,’” Millerioux remembers. “The wall is like a magnet. The South Face is this huge, wide wall. Like four kilometers wide. When you’re still far below, at Tengboche Village, you see this huge wall and you’re like ‘Oh my god. We’re going to climb that.’”

So in 2016, Millerioux and Guigonnet came back, this time with Robin Revest and Fred Degoulet in tow. The conditions were the polar opposite of 2015. The face was plastered with perfect ice. The Gang forged a new line up to 7,350 meters, just a few hundred meters shy of the top, before they threw in the towel. 300 meters below the summit, they realized they might not have enough daylight to make it back to their last camp safely, so they turned around. Millerioux says, “We made the right decision. If we had continued it would not have been good. It was very dangerous.”

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Nuptse: 2; Moustache Gang: 0. The guys were devastated; to have come so close just to come up short was almost gut-wrenching enough for them to forget about the mountain forever.

Almost. The magnetic mountain pulled them back (this time as a trio, without Revest) once again in 2017. After the snafu with the sat phone on Cholatse, they began their push on Nuptse. They established Advanced Base Camp at 5,400 meters, and at midnight on October 14 started up the South Face proper. At 6,000 meters they made Camp 1.

The conditions were closer to what the Frenchmen had encountered in 2015 than 2016: dry, loose and scary. “We were very worried about the first two days because the wall was so dry. It was super warm so there was lots of rock and ice fall,” Millerioux says. On the second day they climbed a pillar that they named the Guillotine and, despite their concerns, had no major hiccups. They made their second camp at 6,500 meters.

While they hoped that conditions would improve after the first two days, there was no such luck. Millerioux says, soberingly:

The whole route was super dangerous this year. We accepted a lot of risk. We’re all mountain guides in France, and in the Alps I would never accept that same level of risk. We were very pushy and aggressive in our climbing. Day by day we were climbing more and more and more and more, and day by day it was the same thing in terms of rock and ice fall. I think by the end the risk just felt normal. You get used to it. Now that I’m back, I’m aware of the seriousness of the risk we were taking, but I wasn’t always at the time.

The third bivy was at 6,800 meters and lay below the most technical climbing of the route. Day four saw the Gang tackle a big couloir with difficulties up to WI6. (“WI6?” I ask, floored that they were climbing that difficulty at that altitude. “I’m not lying,” Millerioux says, laughing. “We all three agreed. It’s definitely WI6. You’re climbing on these ice stalactites.”) They stopped at 7,000 meters the fourth day—the same location as their high camp the year before.

One of the WI6 sections high on the route. Photo: Photo: Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.

The beginning of their troubles in 2016 happened when they got lost in the ice flutes on the last major snowfield. So this year, on the fifth day the team took a more direct line up the snowfield until they hit a cliff, where they traversed left for one pitch and made a fifth camp on the wall at 7,540 meters.

On day six, the Gang climbed two more technical pitches of WI4/5, and then trudged up through the final snow slopes to reach the summit at 3:00 p.m. “We were crying like small children. We were finished. I felt free. There were lots of things inside me which were fighting each other. But we were super happy. You could see the entire earth curving on each side,” Millerioux says. The team enjoyed their success for twenty minutes and then began the descent.

Summit! Photo: Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.

On the way down, at 7,100 meters, their brilliant ascent was nearly marred by disaster. Millerioux was waiting at a belay, when he was struck by a falling rock the size of a grapefruit. It hit him in the back of the shoulder and broke part of his backpack strap. “It was so strong that I cried,” he says. “I thought my arm was broken at first. After the pain, the only thing I was thinking was, now that I’m handicapped, how will we get down? One less climber is a lot harder… It wasn’t about my arm, it was about what will happen now?”

But the Gang des Moustaches, bound by their facial hair, were not about to leave a friend on the mountain. Millerioux says, “They did an amazing job. They helped me really well. I couldn’t do anything myself.” The trio abseiled down to 6,100, waited out the warm daytime temps to avoid more rock fall, and then abseiled through the night, hitting the ground at 1:00 a.m.

Nuptse: 2; Moustache Gang: 1. In alpinism, it doesn’t matter how many times or tries it takes: you only have to get to the top once. With their alpine-style ascent of the South Face of Nuptse, Millerioux, Guigonnet and Degoulet wrote their names into Himalayan climbing history in a major way.

So what’s next for them? “Ben has a baby now, so I think me might be off for some years,” Millerioux says. “I don’t know what my next project will be. We’ll see!”

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All photos © Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.

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Oct 22, 2018

Surfing the Dream in Taiwan

Tucked away in a remote part of the eastern coast of Taiwan, surfer and board-maker, Neil Roe is working on his next creation.

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WRITTEN BY

Alison Watson

It’s a magnificent piece of crafted wood which begs you to touch it. On seeing it, I am seduced by its smooth curves, the rich grain of the wood and the delicate geometric insets. Is it possible to fall in love with a surf-board at first sight?

A deeper admiration surfaces when Roe explains that this board has literally emerged from the jungle outside. Roe shows me a log of wood lying in the workshop: “This is the wood we use. It’s called Paulownia and it’s a very strong and light wood that doesn’t absorb salt water and won’t rot. It’s also the fastest growing hardwood.”

The jungle road to the workshop is a doozy.

“Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed.”

My eyes are drawn to the twisted hunk of fallen tree. It’s difficult to believe that this transforms into the gleaming surfboards that rest against the wall. Roe tells me how he scours the Taiwanese jungle for fallen logs after typhoons have passed, and after haggling with the local indigenous people for a good price, he will haul the log back to the workshop.

Roe and business partner, Clyde Van Zyl, currently work from a rough studio that rests beside dense jungle some 2 km from the small town of Dong’ao. The town is perched near a bay with dramatic cliffs that plunge abruptly to the Pacific Ocean. Roe describes it as the ‘start of the real east coast of Taiwan’. Other than some low-key fishing operations and guests of organised kayaking trips, the pebble-lined beach in the bay remains relatively deserted. I’m told it’s possible to camp for the night and enjoy a fire on the beach.

Rough Jungle Workshop

“Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing.”

To get to the Zeppelin Wood workshop, however, we need to drive inland on the opposite side of town. We direct our taxi driver, flagged down from the train station further up the coast in Su’ao, deeper towards the jungle-clad mountains. As we drive onto a muddy dirt track she becomes increasingly agitated. It’s a relief then, when we see Roe popping out from a derelict-looking shed on the side of road and giving us a wave. She promptly tells him that we owe her more money for the rough driving conditions she has endured getting us there. It’s an exaggeration but I’m not about to argue. I’m keen to get inside the workshop and check out Roe’s creations.

Normal greetings aside, I can’t help but ask the Mandarin Chinese-speaking Roe how he ended up here. It’s a long way from Durban, South Africa. He explains that he was once slaving away behind a computer as a product designer, enduring constant deadlines, and feeling unsatisfied facing the daily office grind. He started dreaming about the possibility of going to Japan, famous for its woodwork and joinery, and finding some wood design guru who would agree to mentor him. And so, off he set.

Roe and Van Zyl’s surboard workshop in the Taiwanese Jungle

But a quick stop in Taiwan on-route visiting an old university friend teaching English quickly turned into three-months, six months, then a year: “I remember I was on a surf trip to Taitung with some friends, camping on an empty beach, jungle clad mountains rising up behind us, Pacific Ocean blue in-front, empty waves rolling endlessly down the point right there. I was hooked. I remember thinking… Can you really do this? Is this kind of life possible? I felt so free in that paradise. I never wanted to leave. I’m still here ten years later. Still smiling.”

Not long after this, he and Van Zyl searched the east coast for some place small to start building their business from, with key requirements of being cheap, close to the waves, and having accommodation to begin a small guesthouse. But the business has now outgrown the current facilities, and the owner of the guesthouse returned home and wanted his house back. The pair are currently searching for new premises to expand their dream of surf and lifestyle.

One of a Kind Craftsmanship

Their expansion plans also align with their new partnership with a surfboard manufacturer further up the coast who will do the final epoxy-fibreglass finishing of each board. It’s a messy, time-consuming job that’s best done on a larger scale and Roe tells me this will make the whole process more efficient. He’s hoping that once cranking they will be able to make finished boards within ten days.

Neil Roe left his office life behind to follow his dream

But this isn’t mass produced product at budget prices. Roe is aiming for the type of surfer who has a passion for a different type of surfing and is prepared to invest in a one-of-a-kind board, made by hand, and coming from nature.

I ask Roe to explain the difference between riding a wooden surfboard to the modern foam composites. He hesitates, searching to put into words the obvious devotion he has for his craft and surfing: “There is an emotional pull for a wooden board, a type of nostalgia that draws you in. Before you even get in the water, just picking up a wooden board connects you with the earliest history of surfing. The ancient Hawaiians used to shape boards out of Koa logs harvested from the jungle. There are so many classic stories and photos etched into our memories of pioneer surfers riding balsa boards.”

Hand-crafted surfboards to meet a variety of sizes.

Aside from the aesthetic and emotional reasons, wooden boards have other qualities according to Roe: “They are heavier, and this weight translates into a different feel in water. I think it makes you surf more in tune with the wave, as you start to use gravity and wave power to get speed and direction. You follow the waves lead and you end up surfing differently and a kind of graceful style evolves. Combining the extra weight with the stiffness makes for a silky-smooth ride you just don’t get on other materials. This is especially noticeable on the wooden longboards in bigger, faster and choppier waves.”

Taiwan’s Typhoons Bring Waves

“Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking.”

Surfing in Taiwan is gaining popularity but it’s still a little rough around the edges. But that’s probably what makes it special. The waves are most consistent between the months of November to March, although typhoon season from April to September can also reward surfers with big beefy waves. Water temperature doesn’t go below 20 degrees. Best of all, Roe tells me that you can easily find empty waves in the weekdays, and even in the weekends if you are prepared to look. There are plenty of places to rent boards and travel is relatively easy.

Taiwan is still relatively unknown as a surf destination but it’s an ultra-cool place with good waves and the laid-back style of Bali – without all the crowds.

Just remember to bring an international driver’s licence, as well as your national driver’s licence, if you intend to rent transport. We didn’t and renting a car was impossible. Luckily, public transport is good with a train system running down most of the east coast with plentiful cheap connecting bus services. Most surf shops run shuttles, can hire out scooters, or are close enough that you can walk to the break. But having a car would give you much greater freedom to explore this wild coastline.

While Roe and Van Zyl are concentrating on developing their surfboard business they also encourage people to visit the workshop and get involved in the process of making something. And the pair offer a small number of dedicated surf trips where travellers can: “Chase waves, camp on the beach, visit the hot springs, and explore waterfalls and mountain swimming holes.” Basically, Roe says it’s the kind of surf trip that they like to do themselves when they have free time: “For sure we’ll take some of our boards along for the surfers to try out. But hopefully we’ll also make some friends along the way.”

Finished Zeppelin Board in Taiwanese temple.

Any invitation to come on over, enjoy a fire on the beach, surf, explore the jungle and generally get lost in this fascinating part of Asia is one worth taking. You may even fall in love with a piece of wood beneath your feet.

Images by Dr Alison Watson

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