Central Himalayas, Sura Peak (6764m)
- Name of the route: Simply Beautiful
- Ascent north-west wall, difficulty M6
- Lenth of ascent: 1500 m, elevation 1300m
- Duration of ascent 4 days + 11 hours descent
- Alpine style
- Climbing partner: Matěj Bernát
- May 2023
“Those above“ are good and they fancy us…
For those who don’t have the time or desire to read the entire article below, I’m just providing an informative technical report. Here it comes:
The ascent of the northwest face of the Sura Peak, 6764 m, was carried out in Alpine style, from 19 to 23 May 2023. The difficulty of the ascent is proposed to be M6, the average slope is 70 degrees (but in some places it reaches up to 90 degrees), the length of the ascent route is 1,500 m, the elevation 1,300 m. The first ascent has been named “Simply Beautiful” and has been realized by the climbers Matěj Bernát and Marek Holeček.
And now... The True Story
The beginning of the Sura Peak story began with my expedition in 2021. That spring, the west face of Baruntse was the goal of the expedition. After all kinds of peripeteia the mountain finally gave way. Since then, it is possible to reach the top via the tough and tricky “Heavenly Trap” route. After a hard struggle, one of my dreams came true there. One might think that the eyes can embrace only one beauty and focus on one goal at a time. Unfortunately, this is not the case because the eyes are restless and unfaithful. Even while acclimatizing to Baruntse, I was eagerly observing the wide surroundings and gradually the space was being created for another portion.
For the past two years, the image of a nameless pyramid rising steeply above a glacier had been returning to me every now and then when I closed my eyes. In my mind I was picturing the possible line leading to the top. Nothing could be done against it. The thought had come to light and I burdened it with the reality of questions. And that thought made me search my archive for photos, browse the internet and magazines, send out questions. Then process all the information and subject it to questions again. “Who has already climbed there, when was it and which route did they take?”
“Is it possible to complete an idea that has already sketched it all out and realized without me making a single real step? And anyway, what's this pointy hill called? Here, I can see it…Sura Peak. ‘Čurda Peeky Peak’, an almost seven-thousand-meter-tall rascal. Well, I'm going for it.” No wonder that our return to the sandy shore that surrounds the glacial lake at more than five thousand meters ASL did not take long. This is also the location of the Base Camp, behind which the wall of mountains rises. A fairy tale corner of the Himalayas, terrifying and desolate in one.
However, before my steps could lead me to the very familiar place again, I had to cross off more items on my list. I had a clear idea of where I wanted to climb, but there was still a question hanging in the air – with whom? I was sending phone signals into the airwaves, addressing my fellow climbers. Whatever the reasons might have been, after two months of searching, the column “Climbing Partner” was still empty.
It was necessary to change the scope of my search. If there are no mature fish at the bottom of the pond, the fisherman must wade in shallower waters for young fry. And let’s see, right at the very first attempt and after a few formal phone phrases, a young fish "Matěj" is flipping about in the drop net.
However, I didn’t choose my climbing partner just randomly or according to an alphabetical list, but based on the performance of the potential candidates. That's how it’s always been. At some point, the functional automatic machine seizes up and one has to try a different set of gear wheels. During almost fifty expeditions, I have joined my journey with many friends, each of them a bit crazy in their own way and focused on something of their own, but always enriching, determined and great.
The beauty of young age lies in the ability to make quick decisions. Youth gushes in energy and abounds in achievements. It is not weighed down by bad experience or bound by the shackles of obligation...
“Okay, Matěj, we are leaving in May and we’ll fine tune the rest in the meantime.” Those are my last words before I hang up the phone.
Days with "Simply Beautiful"
Of course, I know that I owe you the story of those few pivotal days, which should complete the picture and result in the ascent of the NW face of Sura Peak. Here I go.
Originally, I intended to describe the entire course of events only in a strictly technical way, devoid of feelings and romance. I really want to keep myself in check. However, to cut down the whole concept of mountain climbing and moving in the mountains to a mere athletic-gymnastic “position change”, i.e. from the valley to the top, would be highly disrespectful to this philosophy of life, if not barbaric. Mountain climbing is not a classically measurable sport and its purpose is not primarily to reach the top, but mainly to live the experience. I don't remember the summits, but the strong, hard and beautiful moments and my climbing partners who helped me look down from the peaks.
But to the point. Before Matěj and I reached the Base Camp, we had been roaming in the Central Himalayas for two weeks in order to train our lungs and legs. In other words, we had been strengthening the internal overload protection to be able to face the moments when the body struggles with the lack of oxygen. We reached the cool place by the mountain lake on May 13. Immediately after the porter dropped off the baggage I happily sent him back to Khare. It is a small village over ten hours away in another valley, separated by a pass lying at an altitude of 5,500 meters. We were left all alone in a beautiful place surrounded by the mountains, waiting for the starting shot. It was the right time to take a closer look at what lay ahead. There was only little snow and the reliefs of dark rock and deep blue ice peeked out from the surrounding mountain walls. As if I was looking at a herd of starving horses whose every bone was sticking out of their skin and whose ribs could be played like strings of a harp. This year’s monsoon didn’t bring any salvation in the form of snow. After all, there was one difference compared to previous years. Perceptible all-day cold. Whether it was good for our climb or not, remained to be seen. Reconciling with what you can’t control is the basis. And then possibly turn what you have into a miracle. With the help of the stars above, only human imagination, skill and will are gifted with such an ability. You don’t need anything else. All we had to do then was to wait for the auspicious moment foretold by our “weather girl” Alena and delivered with the daily portion of her meteorological news through satellite.
The starting day didn’t come until Friday, May 19. Matěj and I prepared the backpack with gear and everything we might need in the following five days. Those five days should be enough for our way up and a safe return. We were looking forward to the NW face, having its image fixed in our minds.
Our camp was located directly under the face on the glacier at 5,500 metres ASL. A comfortable place to sleep, except for the view above us. From the foot of the mountain an icy slope rises which might be 50 degrees in its lower part. The slope gets steeper with the next meters and in the upper part it changes into a vertical threshold where a forked glacial serac grinned at us. Above the serac loomed an ominously overhanging and impenetrable dark rock face. So good night and restful sleep. But mainly no fleas or dark nightmares stemming from the idea what awaits us in the morning…
The conditions of the first section were corresponding to our expectations. We didn’t secure each other at the beginning, the rope served only as a silent connection of our destinies. We gained height quickly with every hour. Around 10 o’clock in the morning the sun rays finally reached us. They were not aggressive, but strong enough to slowly loosen the morning stiffness caused by frost. Shortly after noon we managed to reach the steepest part of the icy “slide” which crossed the serac threshold. The slope reached 80 degrees and only at some places rose into a vertical wall of blue ice. With increasing strain our progress slowed and the afternoon sun quickly drifted westwards. We started feeling the pain in the neck and shoulders as we were constantly looking up and jamming the ice axes into ice. Our lungs could still catch up, but they would have certainly voted for a break. During one diagonal traverse leading through a system of grooves which formed a connection to the ascent line I happened to come across a cave. It must have been formed some time ago while one part of the ice shell slid downwards and created a terrain fault with a one-meter-wide crack. Yay… for us this was a place for a bivouac, just a bit above the level of 6,000 metres. The cave must have been sent to us from heaven.
The weather hadn’t bothered us too much with wind and snow until that day, but then there was an unwelcome change. In the morning the sun smiled at us, but after a short joyful moment the clouds took over. We climbed another 150 metres of ice flutes leading from the bivouac to the place where a continuous rock barrier grew out of them. This was a predictable trouble. The very first meters proved that the rock structure was like gingerbread, even sprinkled with loose snow sugar. We started to dance on the irons and swing the ice axes, almost unable to find a support for their pointed tips. It reminded me of the cartoon character Mickey Mouse trying to hold himself over an abyss with legs and arms spinning like propellers in the air. For a while it seemed he would never crash. After a lot of effort I climbed only two lengths of rope, some 70 metres, in this manure pit. All securing had a psychological effect rather than real and we could hardly rely on it. When I took the rope in, Matěj fell out of it twice with something. Luckily, the belay I had set up on the belay station held firm and so our bodies didn’t fly down to the valley. I knew we wouldn’t move an inch further. The weather clearly indicated that we should quickly find a place to sleep. Icy waterfalls began to slide from above and the wind bit the bones through our clothes. But there was no platform in sight that would offer space for at least one buttock. The terrain all around was hostilely slanted. We had no choice but to dig into a 70-degree slope. But even after twenty minutes of wild thrashing we didn’t celebrate victory. Under a few-centimeter-thick layer of ice there was rock with the same slope. We were in a deep shit with the whole circus. It was quite clear what to do next. We had to attach the canopy of the tent to our belay in which we were hanging. Later it would evoke a big garbage bag hung on a nail. We had to cram into it with our sleeping bags and all stuff and make sure that nothing would fall down. There was no support to lean on in the tent so our bodies were sliding on the ground. We were like two marionettes tied by strings to the middle of an inhospitable mountain face. A night full of passion unmatched by anything took more than enough of our waning strength.
The key day of the entire ascent. Although we didn’t know if we could succeed in climbing the following metres of the rock, it was crystal clear, that if we didn’t, we would get into a big trouble. Getting back through the places we had climbed during the two previous days was hard to imagine. On the other hand, the eighty-metre-long rock section above our heads looked like one huge overhang. Each time when I am indecisive my inner voice whispers to me: “Just give it a try – give a focused valid attempt and you’ll see.” It took me long hours before I was able to overcome two lengths of rope, with my feet digging in the rocky terrain that resembled a quarry. The abyss gaping down to the foot of the glacier was about one kilometer deep. The fear was gone. There wasn’t any more space for fear. I only felt the muscle fatigue and in my head an alarm started buzzing to warn me that my mental strength was running out of gas. Our bodies were shivering due to hypothermia and it started snowing. At last, the damn rock was finally behind us and the way to the top opened. At that moment Matěj replaced me as the lead and with a precise routine started to climb the next two icy lengths. At the end of the second one he found a crack which I had picked out at our start. I had thought there might be a place for a bivvy. And so it was, on the 70-degree slope, another kiss of luck in this world. We set up a tent, boiled water to refresh our frozen and dried intestines. We hit the sack which felt like a four poster bed compared to the sack of the previous evening.
On that day we were heading to the top for the cherry and cream. Easy to say, harder to do. Every time our toes tripped over the unyielding frozen mass resembling blue glass, they sent a pain signal to the nervous system. “Ouch…that hurts!” We could feel the spasms in our hands caused by thousands of blows of our ice axes. I was losing feeling in my shoulders and the straps of my backpack were painfully cutting into my armpits. After less than two hours after leaving the bivouac we climbed the last 140 elevation metres. There was nowhere to climb further. No applause, no standing ovation. We forced our faces to squeeze out smiles that rather expressed the relieved joy that we no longer had to take another step higher. We hugged each other with a pat on the back. We quickly took out our cameras. Click… a moment of tape recording and the whole ceremony was over. I could feel the relief, but the day was far from over. One last look at the spiky world all around. I was looking at that rigid frozen beauty, trying to indelibly inscribe it in my memory again. However, the image never lasts long before it starts to fade out and finally it disappears completely. The only thing that remains captured in the colourful memories is the hardship, hard work and the climbing partner with whom you underwent the martyrdom. Our gaze falls on the nearest mountain giants. Baruntse is within reach, directly connected by a ridge, and Chamlang juts out from the other side. Suddenly, I feel a strong impulse which engulfs my consciousness and an unstoppable wave rushes out. You are a nostalgic old fool. I wipe away the tears that are welling up in my eyes. Sure, you managed to make a great first ascent on this and that hill some years ago. And also Kyashar, it can be seen over there. Further to the east is Talung and behind several valleys Kyazo Ri. Pull yourself together and stop shedding tears because this is no good time to reminisce. Regardless of the fact that I was probably most moved by the realization that my train was approaching its destination and would be put aside in the coming years. “Okay, thank you, Himalaya”…my last boohoo and I go to hell.
Matěj took the lead in the descent along the sharp ridge resembling the spine of the Loch Ness monster. I was glad because the footsteps you can see in the snow in front of you indicate that someone has passed here and it is feasible. A kind of a placebo effect or a connection with life. It doesn’t matter that Matěj and I are tied to a rope twenty meters apart. We are moving in the same rhythm, leaving our protection in the hands of the Almighty. One-kilometre-deep chasm on both sides and we have to drive in our ice axes and irons with every step. Both is in fact only pretending that we are secured. Our hands and legs slip a little each time before gaining stability in the loose snow. Hours are passing and the valley is approaching only reluctantly. We leave the snow cover behind us just before it gets dark. We may look like rag dolls whose soft feet tread clumsily in the sea of stones. Every now and then our steps cause the rocks to come loose and roll down with a rumble into the approaching darkness.
The story of Sura Peak is coming to an end. Before eleven o’clock at night we arrive at the “teahouse” Seto Pokhari. It is a stone enclosure covered with a rubberized fabric instead of a roof. Here, the porters and our friend Pavel are waiting for us. But this place is a real peak of luxury and centre of civilization for our exhausted bodies.
To sum it up: the climb we called “Simply Beautiful” was a pure alpinism. A beautiful untouched face. No posh Base Camp with puppet staff. Only a few backup meals before we started. One battle tent, a backpack with gear, a rope like a umbilical cord, our plan and determination. Nothing useless. Then a battle for each step in the NW face all the way up to the top and a rush back down, to life. This is the end.
My last words belong to Matěj. Thank you.
I also thank the one or those up there for keeping a protective hand over us. And thanks to you and your partners for your favour.