Ascent of Dhaulagiri 1994

by Rich Henke


       The idea of climbing Dhaulagiri began in the fall of 1992 when Peter Green and I discussed organizing a climb of a big interesting peak. Dhaulagiri, which at 26,795 feet is the sixth highest mountain in the world, is located in Nepal. We decided upon Dhaulagiri for several reasons. It was one of the 14 peaks in the world that are over 8,000 meters high, the Northeast Ridge has a relatively non-technical route which was within our capabilities, and the administrative problems of climbing Dhaulagiri were manageable. My experience in leading treks in Nepal had allowed me to develop personal contacts in Kathmandu who were reliable, could help to obtain the necessary permits, and could work the bureaucratic issues.

       The climb was very successful in that four of our eight members summited on October 3rd and 4th while two more got to within 300 feet of the summit on October 9th before turning back due to high winds. Credit for this success is due to our team members having common objectives and a consistent philosophy which is described in more detail below. Good weather was also a key factor.

       The total cost of climbing Dhaulagiri averaged about $3900 per person including airfare and the peak fee of $8000. This included common gear but not personal equipment. Costs for personal equipment varied greatly among the members depending upon the amount of high altitude gear they already owned. Tents were provided by individuals and taken home again after the climb.


       Figure 1 is a photograph of the mountain taken from the north which shows the Northeast Ridge very clearly. Figure 2 shows the approximate locations of Base Camp plus the four additional camps we set up. The following is a list of the key events on the mountain:

27 August Depart Los Angeles for Kathmandu

1 September Bus from Kathmandu to Pokhara

2 September Begin trek to Base Camp

10 September Cross Dampas Pass (17,100 ft.)

11 September Cross French Col (17,600 ft.)

11 September Arrive Base Camp (15,500 ft.)

14 September Establish Camp 1 (18,600 ft.)

21 September Establish Camp 2 (22,000 ft.)

26 September Establish Camp 3 (23,300 ft.)

29 September Establish Camp 4 (24,000 ft.)

3 October Summit (Henke, Taylor)

4 October Summit (Johnson, R. Green)

15 October Last person leaves Base Camp

23 October Most people fly home

       Most of the group spent 58 days away from the USA. It took 10 days to trek to Base Camp. The first successful summit bid occurred 23 days later.


       Our initial group consisted of six people: Peter and Rob Green, Dave Custer, Alois Smrz, Miguel Carmona and myself. We had periodic meetings as early as December 1992 to discuss climbing objectives and to determine the equipment that would be required for the climb. A team philosophy was developed that proved to be very successful. We wanted the team members to consist of friends who would enjoy spending extended time together in addition to being capable mountaineers. Professional climbers or hotshots, who might have more at stake in reaching the summit than a group of amateurs, were not sought out. Our objective was to have a good time in the mountains with a group of friends, and if weather and conditions were favorable, we hoped to reach the summit. We wanted a team of 8-10 people; our final team was eight. Miguel had to drop out because of back problems. Brian Johnson (a doctor), Rick Taylor, and Ken Brameld were added. In addition, Lorraine Green (Peter's wife) trekked in to Base Camp with us and remained for the entire climb.

       Another key feature of the climbing approach was that we would use minimal equipment but would stop short of an alpine style climb. Pure alpine style has climbers moving up a mountain one time, carrying everything needed for a successful climb. Camps are set up and vacated completely as the climbers move up from camp to camp. This type of climbing is not practical for 8,000 meter peaks because climbers do not have sufficient time to acclimatize to the high altitudes involved. High altitude alpine climbs have been successful only when climbers have had time to acclimatize on other high peaks immediately before starting their ascent. Our plan was to set up several camps on the mountain and stock these camps with tents, sleeping bags, food, and fuel as we made several trips from Base Camp.

       Our gear was organized so that parties of two people could be self-sufficient and not dependent upon others for supplies or equipment. This method of climbing is discussed in detail in an article by Alan Rouse called 'Lightweight Expeditions'. The pairing up of people changed during the climb depending upon health, energy, and the amount of rest required by each person. There was no central direction from either the expedition leader (myself) or the climbing leader (Peter Green). My role was an administrative one; to handle the permits and bureaucratic processes and to get the team to Base Camp with proper support. Peter's role as climbing leader was to resolve any disputes or climbing issues that might arise - a job which was never required.

       We spent considerable time planning for the technical portions of the climb. Although we used porters and ponies to get to Base Camp, we were on our own above that point. We did not use climbing Sherpas who typically carry most of the gear up a mountain and sometimes fix ropes over the difficult technical sections. Although our route, the Northeast Ridge, was relatively non-technical as compared to other 8,000 meter peaks, it did require climbing a difficult icefall which began less than an hour from Base Camp. Also, the steepness of the terrain above Camp 2 at about 22,000 feet was about 45· and depending upon the conditions, could require ropes or belayed climbing. Finally, the narrow ridge just below the summit was reported to be very exposed.

       We took sufficient gear to be able to handle those problems. We knew that the Northeast Ridge was a popular route and that several other expeditions would be on the mountain simultaneously. Hence, there was a good probability that much of the difficult sections would have fixed ropes in place. Indeed, this turned out to be the case, which allowed us to leave much of our rope and technical gear in Base Camp.


       The total amount of equipment that we carried above Base Camp was small by expedition standards. It consisted of about 80 pounds per person. This included tents, sleeping bags and pads, clothing, food, stoves, fuel, and climbing equipment. Our initial assumption was that we could set up and stock our high camps on the mountain in 3 trips from Base Camp. This indeed turned out to be true. The people who successfully summited climbed above Base Camp a total of four times, but carried an almost empty pack on the final trip to the summit. We used Sierra Design Stretch Dome tents at Camp 1 and Camp 2, a Stevenson 3-person tent at Camp 2, and 2-person Bibler and Integral Design Tents at Camps 3 and 4. Several 'hanging bluet stoves' were placed at each camp. Most of the climbers had Feathered Friends sleeping bags or their equivalent, one-piece Gore-tex suits, one-piece down suits and Everest One Sport boots. We spared no expense for personal equipment. As one climber said at one of our planning meetings when discussing a $400 pair of boots, "that is about $40 per toe!" It seemed a reasonable expense. We carried four small radios, 300 wands and an enormous amount of chocolate.


       Upon arrival in Kathmandu, my time was filled with endless paperwork and preparations. Our $8000 peak fee had been sent to Nepal 10 months earlier, but we still did not have our expedition permit in hand. By the third day in Kathmandu, everything was in order and we left by bus for the eight hour drive to Pokhara, Nepal's second largest city. The following day we drove to Baglung at the end of the road and started trekking.

       The approach to Base Camp at 15,500 feet was similar to self-contained full service treks which I had organized numerous times in the past. Chheduk Man Lama was our Nepali Sirdar who I had worked with since 1983. He supervised a cooking crew, porters, and ponies who carried all gear, prepared all meals and set up camps. Part of this support crew remained in Base Camp where they provided us with unlimited supplies of good food such as pasta, potatoes, vegetables, eggs, and apple pie. We were impressed at the amazing cooking feats performed in such a basic environment.

       We trekked north along the Kali Gandaki staying in tea houses, (small Nepali inns), along the way. By some estimates this is the deepest gorge in the world. It is flanked by Annapurna I and Dhaulagiri which are about 16 miles apart. At a point beneath a line connecting the two peaks, the gorge is almost three miles deep. Our approach hike occurred during the summer monsoon and we expected leaches and lots of rain. We saw no leaches, had only a little rain, and enjoyed the trek immensely. We started walking with a support staff of about 15 people, sending most of our gear by plane to Jomsom which we would reach in six days. In Jomsom, ponies supplemented our porters for the long climb over Dampas Pass (17,100 ft.) and French Col (17,600 ft.). Since there were no tea houses here, we relied on our Nepali staff for food and camps. We descended to Base Camp at 15,600 ft. on September 11, ten days after we started walking.

       Base Camp was easily recognizable; four other expeditions were already there camped on the glacial moraine and were using all the flat areas. We had to move rocks and hack out flat platforms from the ice below to pitch our tents. Of prime importance was our cooking and dining tents where we spent much of our time.

       All together, we took 3,300 pounds to Base Camp, the majority being food, tents, and gear which would go no higher. Of this total weight, about 1,300 pounds were brought by air from the USA. We paid no overweight charges. Airline regulations allow each person to check two 70 pound bags plus take aboard a 50 pound carry-on.


       Once in Base Camp, we organized our gear and investigated the route through the icefall. Expeditions that had arrived earlier had fixed the route, but the initial stretch looked difficult and dangerous. A fixed rope extended for 300 feet on a very steep slope with lots of loose rock and dirt and was very exposed to rockfall from above. Closer inspection showed that it was not as steep as it appeared and that rockfall was infrequent. Nevertheless, it was my least favorite part of the climb.

       The fixed ropes in the icefall were necessary and were used extensively during every trip from Base Camp to Camp 1. When required, we helped to maintain these ropes since the ice screws to which they are attached often melt out and need to be replaced. The icefall was constantly changing which often necessitated moving the fixed ropes. We found fixed ropes higher on the mountain which we clipped into, just because they were available. However, given the conditions encountered, we could have climbed almost all of the mountain above the icefall without fixed ropes, with just a few short exceptions.

       Over the next several weeks, a continuing pattern emerged. In groups of two, we determined how much weight to carry, how high to go, and when we needed to return to Base Camp for good food and rest. Above Base Camp, each person was responsible for his own food. Each camp was equipped with hanging stoves and pot sets that provided unlimited hot water. Personal preference dictated the food selection. But since we all knew how difficult it was to get enough calories at altitude, the food above Base Camp consisted of things that people thought they could eat. It does no good to take wholesome food and not be able to eat it. It is better to take cookies, candy, poptarts, or whatever is palatable at altitude.

       We experienced various illnesses, which is typical on a Himalayan climb. These ranged from minor colds and diarrhea to more severe coughs and stomach problems. How a person was feeling determined how many rest days were needed at Base Camp, where it was easier to recover from illness and to maintain body weight.

       Two days after arriving at Base Camp, five of us climbed for 12 long hours with much too heavy packs, and established Camp 1 at 18,600 feet. Here we pitched four large tents in a flat, safe and secure camp. Seven days later, on our second trip up the mountain, Rick Taylor and I established Camp 2 at 22,000 feet on a small flat spot below a vertical ice wall. Five days after that, on our third trip above Base Camp, Rick and I established Camp 3 at 23,300 feet. In retrospect, this location was a mistake, since a much better camp existed 700 feet higher, which was established three days later by Dave Custer. Camp 3 was used sparingly and the two successful summit bids bypassed it completely. We were very pleased with our excellent progress. This was primarily due to the near-perfect weather conditions we had encountered. Dhaulagiri has been called the "Mountain of Storms" and previous climbers have often failed to summit due to difficulties with the weather.


       On September 30th, Rick Taylor and I left Base Camp and arrived in Camp 1 six hours later. This was our fourth excursion from Base Camp. Lighter loads, better acclimatization, and familiarization with the route had reduced the time required to reach Camp 1 by a factor of two. During the next two days, we climbed to Camp 2 and then to Camp 4. The weather remained excellent. On October 3rd, we left our small tent at 3 a.m. and started for the summit using the light from our lithium headlamps. Snow conditions on the mountain were such that we were able to traverse upward on a moderate snow slope that led directly to a steep couloir just below the summit. People with whom we talked from previous expeditions had been forced to stay on the ridge which was more technical and exposed. We climbed unroped, each with a single ice axe and light pack. In fact, climbing ropes were only used in a few cases, lower on the mountain early during the climb. We wore all of our clothes; I wore a down suit covered by a one-piece Gore-tex shell. Except for the altitude, the climbing was routine. At these altitudes, any exertion leaves one gasping for breath. I tried to maintain a pace where I took only two or three breaths per step, but even this pace required frequent rest breaks. Nevertheless, the weather held and we inched our way upward. At about 12:30 p.m. we stood on the summit, undoubtedly the highest people in a world of five billion people. What did we do on the summit? We took hurried photos, and started down. Our major concern was for a safe descent, and not to bask in the sunshine. The snow couloir at the top had a fixed rope which was very useful on the descent.

       We arrived back at Camp 4 before dark, where we spent several hours melting snow to rehydrate and eat. We were cold and shaky, but by the time we were ready to sleep we were both feeling fine. Meanwhile, Bryan and Rob were in a Bibler Tent slightly below us, but we were too tired to visit or even to yell "we made it". We learned later that they knew we had returned because of all the snow and ice that we kicked down on their tent. They had left Base Camp one day after us and would attempt to summit the following day.

       We started our descent the following morning at about 10:30 a.m. Before leaving, we contacted Base Camp via radio, having failed to connect with them the previous evening. A section of fixed rope between Camp 4 and Camp 3 was very useful. Without the rope we would have had to go down very cautiously facing in to the mountain. We bypassed Camp 3 again and stopped at Camp 2 for much needed rest. Rick arrived well before me; he was quicker and stronger in the descent, just as he had been on Summit Day. We took down one of the two large tents at Camp 2 and continued our descent to Camp 1.

       We had some snowfall and very poor visibility in the afternoon, and while this caused us some minor problems in route finding, we were more concerned for our friends on their summit bid. The descent to Camp 1 seemed to take forever, and the poor visibility made it very difficult to see the wands marking the way. Rick was very tired, and for a change, I led the way down. We reached Camp 1 two hours after dark, both exhausted. We did find enough energy to eat and drink however, since we knew the following day would be another challenge.

       One of the problems with not having climbing Sherpa support is that we had to take our gear back down in addition to carrying it up. Except for food and fuel, what we had carried up in four trips had to be carried back down in one. The next day heavy packs were a certainty and we were exhausted from the previous two days. Rick had a somewhat bad night. You read about people hallucinating at altitude. We were back down to 18,600 feet, but nevertheless Rick had some strange observations during the night. He was sure that the people from an Italian team in the adjacent tents were making love; he could hear them. Yes, there had been some Italians on the mountain. But they had departed a week earlier! Altitude does strange things. By morning, Rick and I were feeling fine but it took us forever to pack and start our descent. We packed all of our personal gear plus some community gear which would not be needed by the rest of the group. We started down carrying 45 pound packs. It took me six hours to reach Base Camp where Lorraine and our support team were waiting. Food and rest never felt so good.


       Rob and Bryan left Camp 4 on their summit bid at 2:30 a.m. on October 4th. Fresh snow impeded their progress but they reached the summit by 2:30 p.m. However, the same storm that caused Rick and I a problem between Camp 2 and Camp 1 caused even more problems above 25,000 feet. Visibility deteriorated to a point where they risked walking off the cliff bands above Camp 4 since they could not see the wands marking the descent route. They had to make a critical decision of whether to risk falling off a cliff or spending the night in a storm at such a high altitude. They dug a depression in the snow and waited out the night. Spending a night out at 25,000 feet is a serious proposition. Both Bryan and Rob were wearing heavy Feathered Friends Down suits which was a key factor in their surviving the night. However, Rob's feet became cold. During the night, he kept them warm by putting them against Bryan's stomach under layers of down. However, putting on his cold snow filled boots in the morning did not help the situation. In the morning, visibility improved enough for them to reach Camp 4 where they spent the rest of the day rewarming Rob's feet.

       The following day they slowly descended to Camp 2 where they met Ken who had gone up the mountain to help. It took two more days to reach Base Camp with Peter assisting them through the icefall. Imagine how Rob felt during the five day descent when during the entire time he believed that he might lose some of his toes. Rob said later that if he had to get frostbite at all, it was good to be with Doctor Bryan. His good care kept Rob's toes from freezing, which was the key factor in not losing them. During this descent, the people at Base Camp were well aware of what was going on through daily radio contact. We sent a runner to Jomsom to request a helicopter rescue which arrived on the morning of October 9th, the day after Rob and Bryan returned to Base Camp. Rob, Lorraine, and I flew to Kathmandu where Rob immediately went to see a doctor well versed in frostbite. His diagnosis was that Rob would not lose his toes, which luckily has turned out to be the case. Rob has become quite a specimen for our Southern California doctors who rarely get to experience a frostbite case.


       On the day that the helicopter evacuation occurred, Ken and Dave were making a summit bid. As the three of us left on the helicopter, we could see the top of the mountain from Base Camp, and from the way snow plumes were blowing off the top, we estimated that the wind speed was 100 miles per hour. Dave and Ken made it to the foot of the high snow couloir but had to turn back only 300 feet from the summit. The weather had definitely changed for the worse. The good weather of late September and early October had given way to the cold winds of the approaching winter. There were no other successful summit bids from any of the expeditions after October 9th. Alois had been at Camp 3 during the storm. The three of them cleared the upper camps as they retreated down the mountain. Camp 1 was also vacated and with help from some of the climbing Sherpas from the French expedition, nothing of value was lost. We gave our extra food to a Belgium expedition that was waiting out the storm. We vacated Base Camp several days later and the remainder of the team began the hike out on October 15th to return to Kathmandu.


       With the exception of Rob and Bryan's forced bivouac, the climb went very well and we met our objectives. The weather favored the four of us who pushed high early. This was purely chance as it is difficult to predict weather on Dhaulagiri. If health had allowed the other four climbers to attempt to summit earlier, all could have made it. We were all thankful that we had a safe expedition as well as a successful one. A Swiss climber and a Ukrainian climber were not so fortunate. They died on Dhaulagiri while we were there.

       For me, this was my first and last 8,000 meter peak. I made the decision a year before the climb that this would be my last really big mountain. But it feels great to have reached the summit on the most ambitious climb of my life.