From time to time, Alpinist.com features new stories from the American Alpine Journal (AAJ), which is published annually by the American Alpine Club. In this installment Antoine Girard documents an experiment that utilized paragliders to approach peaks in Nepal’s Langtang Himal that tend to be inaccessible because of difficult approaches or objective hazards.
There are a number of attractive unclimbed faces in the Himalaya that have not even been attempted because the approach is considered too difficult or dangerous. On paper, our concept was simple: We would use paragliders to catch thermals and fly over the danger zone, landing at a safe site on the face. From there we would hope to climb in alpine style to the summit and back, and then descend by paraglider.
After extensive research on the mountains of Nepal, Julien Dusserre and I found that Langtang Lirung (7227m) met all the criteria. Relatively few have reached the summit, and the peak is deemed highly dangerous due to constant avalanches. [There are 14 known ascents, nearly all by the southeast or southwest ridges. However, unauthorized ascents are rumored.–AAJ Ed.] The east face remains virgin, and toward the right side there was a potential safe landing between 5700 meters and 6000 meters. Above lie snowfields that lead, seemingly easily, to the upper crest of the unrepeated northeast ridge, the route of the first known ascent (Japanese, 1978). Below the proposed landing site is a chaos of ice, where seracs fall almost constantly. And in this part of the world it is quite easy to find thermals up to 6000 meters.
We trekked from Kathmandu through Helambu in poor weather. We each carried 37-kilogram (82-pound) packs, and we used no porters. We were completely autonomous. When the weather improved and we had gained enough altitude and acclimatization, we launched our paragliders and flew to the Langtang Valley, eliminating three days of walking with two hours of flight.
To finalize our acclimatization for Langtang Lirung, we decided to attempt a similar climb with two nights spent at altitude. Choosing a peak that had characteristics closest to our main objective, we settled for Shalbachum (6707m), where there are several possible landing sites between 5000 and 6200 meters. The remaining ascent did not look too difficult. [This peak was first climbed in 1959 by Japanese via the southwest face. Italians claimed to have climbed it in 1963, but there are no details, and since then there are no known ascents.–AAJ Ed.]
On April 30 we packed 18-kilogram (40-pound) rucksacks and flew from a height of 4200 meters to a snow terrace on the southwest face of the mountain at 5800 meters. Unfortunately, we were now in cloud. Moving through deep snow, we reached a higher terrace at 6200 meters, where we decided to sleep. It was clear and cold that night, but the next morning large, dark clouds gathered in the west. It began to snow. In the middle of the afternoon we took advantage of a lull to down climb, not without difficulty, to 5800 meters, where we camped for our second night. Next day we descended another 250 meters, and after digging a takeoff runway and waiting for the wind to subside, we managed to fly down to the main valley.
After a couple of days of rest, we felt sufficiently acclimatized to take a shot at Langtang Lirung. Unfortunately, the weather remained unstable. From May 5 to 11, we made multiple attempts to fly up to Langtang Lirung carrying 12-kilogram packs, including food for three days. Sadly, the weather was such that air currents formed a flying ceiling of little more than 4600 meters. With no change in the forecast until June, we abandoned the expedition.
On the positive side, we now know that this system will work, and given the right weather conditions it is certain that paragliding will make it possible to discover new routes that were hitherto deemed inaccessible.
–Antoine Girard, France