The (almost) forgotten Chamlang expedition

The routes of Halecek/Hak (read) and Eberle/Köhler (green) on Chamlang

Marek Holecek and Zdenek Hak are a strong climbing team. After the two Czechs had already received the Piolet d’Or in 2018 for their new route through the Southwest Face of the eight-thousander Gasherbrum I in Pakistan, they will again be awarded the “Oscar of climbers” on 19 September at the mountain festival in Ladek-Zdroj in Poland: for their new route via the Northwest Face of the 7,321-meter-high Chamlang in Nepal, which they climbed in Alpine style in spring 2019. Afterwards Marek and Zdenek traversed the summit and descended via the route of the Japanese first ascenders. A Piolet-d’Or-worthy performance, without question.

But Holecek’s statement on his sponsor’s website that it was “the first ascent of the 2,000 m high grueling Northwest Face climbing Alpine style” is only correct if “complete” is added before the word “ascent”. Because already 30 years ago two German mountaineers climbed the Northwest Face – at least up to 6,600 meters, in order to ascend from there via the West Face to the summit. They were also climbing in Alpine style.

Doug Scott gave the tip

Bernd Eberle (l.) and Stefan Köhler (r.) on Chamlang in 1990

Stefan Köhler and Bernd Eberle managed the fourth ascent of Chamlang on 21 October 1990 – on a new route. They had received the tip to climb through the Northwest Face from none other than Doug Scout. The legendary British mountaineer had first climbed the North Face of Chamlang to the 7,180-meter-high Central Summit summit in 1981 together with the South Tyrolean Reinhold Messner. In 1984 he had failed with another team in his attempt to traverse the three summits of the Chamlang massif. Scott and his then wife Sharabati Prabhu were also the ones who pulled the necessary strings in Nepal for the German team around Köhler and Eberle in 1990. The team shrank from originally six to four members because two of them suffered from high altitude sickness and therefore had to leave the base camp prematurely.

This left only Eberle and his wife Kathrin as well as Köhler and his girlfriend at the time, Dagmar Stein. Because of a bad weather phase the time for an attempt in the Northwest Fall was running out. The two women accompanied the men to the foot of the wall, then Stefan Köhler and Bernd Eberle started climbing. “At that time, our route led exclusively through snow and ice,” recalls Köhler, now 60 years old. “Climate change has also left its mark on Chamlang.”

Nights in the storm

At the foot of the Northwest Face

Stefan and Bernd climbed up on the right side, seen from the foot of the wall, over a 40 to 60 degrees steep slope. “Two to three pitches were even about 70 degrees steep”, Köhler tells me. “But mostly we climbed without rope.” The two German mountaineers spent a night in the storm on a small platform at 6,200 meters. The second bivouac the next day was hardly more relaxing. They pitched their small, only single-walled and therefore light tent in a crevasse on the West Ridge at 6,600 meters. “We thought we were protected in the crevasse, but it turned out to be a wind tunnel,” says Stefan.

On the third day, they climbed the remaining 700 meters to the summit via the West Face. At 10 o’clock local time they stood on top. “It was extremely cold, minus 30 degrees Celsius, in addition the storm. We could hardly stand upright,” reports Köhler. They quickly set out again on the descent – following the route of their ascent.

In the wall

“The visibility was good. If fog had come in or it had started snowing, we probably wouldn’t have found the way again.” After another night at 6,200 meters Stefan and Bernd reached the foot of the wall, where Dagmar and Kathrin were waiting for them. “I was then in the best physical shape of my life,” Stefan Köhler remembers. “Looking back, I would describe our tour as an outstanding achievement – for that time. We left a trace on Chamlang.”

“Bad luck of history”

Just below the summit cornice

The two German climbers found it all the more disappointing that their first ascent of the seven-thousander in Nepal met with little public interest. “At that time, the Internet was still in its infancy, there were only a few alpine magazines. And they jumped at the solo ascent of the Lhotse South Face, which Tomo Cesen had allegedly succeeded in that year,” says Köhler. “Against this background, hardly anyone was interested in our successful project. Later, the Lhotse story turned out to be a lie.” Cesen’s alleged coup on the South Face of the eight-thousander Lhotse is still highly disputed because the Slovenian was unable to provide any evidence of his ascent.

Back from the successful ascent

They had the “bad luck of history” back then, says Köhler. The First Mayor of the German town of Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance is still drawn to the high mountains. In 2016, for example, he scaled the 7,077-meter-high Kun in the Indian Himalayas and in 2017 the 7,546-meter-high Mustagh Ata in western China. His partner in 1990 on  Chamlang, Bernd Eberle, still works as a mountain guide in the Bavarian municipality of Mittenwald near the Karwendel massif.

The fact that a Chamlang expedition will now be awarded the Piolet d’Or is something the two German mountaineers are pleased about on the one hand. On the other hand it opens up old wounds. “It is not my intention to spoil the Czechs’ joy. I really grant them the award,” says Stefan Köhler. “But just like back then, nobody is talking about our first ascent 30 years ago. And that hurts.”      

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