French alpinists Ben Guigonnet, Fred Degoulet and Hélias Millerioux call themselves Le Gang des Moustaches. 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!”
All photos © Degoulet/Guigonnet/Millerioux.