Jean-Christophe Lafaille: Annapurna 2002

First the words then the pictures...

Ascent of Annapurna (8,091metres) by the East Ridge on round trip.

Annapurna’s Base Camp, May 16th 2002, 10.00 am… I can hear over the radio Jean Christophe ; he shouted for joy at Annapurna’s summit!!! The emotion is so deep that we both cry…

1992: At the age of 27, Jean-Christophe departs with Pierre Beghin for the South Face of Annapurna. It is his first Himalayan experience.

At 7,500 meters, Pierre and Jean-Christophe decide to descend in a storm that busted (broke) the previous night, which has not abated. Just as they are about to begin their descent by rappel, the rock upon which Pierre is suspended gives away and he plunges into the abyss of the South Face right in front of a terrified Jean-Christophe who is suddenly lost in this vastness lonely place.

His descent towards the bottom (and survival) was five days long. He had a broken arm caused by a stone's fall and no gear on the descent of this sheer 2,000-metre face.

1995: Jean-Christophe decides to return, in solo trip to the south face of Annapurna by the Bonnington Spur. He turns back 300 vertical meters from the summit due to adverse weather conditions.

1998: Jean-Christophe goes back to the South Face of Annapurna, again by the Bonnington Spur, but this time with 3 companions. The mountain is very snowy and an accident occurs below Camp 1 at 5,700 meters. 4 Sherpas are trapped in an avalanche, one loses his life.

Jean-Christophe said never again to Annapurna, never again to this darn mountain. Too many deaths, too many accidents, too many memories. After 1998, he climbed Manaslu (8,163 meters) in the spring of 2000. In 2001, he reached the summit of the mountain of all mountains, K2 (8,611), the 2nd highest peak in the world.

2002: A chance to share a permit for the south face of Annapurna arises. The American, Ed Viesturs, is the expedition leader. Jean Christophe and Ed get in contact via email and over the Internet. Jean Christophe has a good feeling about the team and he feels ready to return to this mountain for the 4th time.

10 years have passed since his first attempt on Annapurna and today...  he wanted to climb the south face solo, by a new route. The conditions on the south face not being very good, he changes his plans and joins the others on an attempt by the big East Ridge. 7.5 km of ridge from 7,500 meters to the summit, at 8,091 meters.

The first and only ascent of this route was made in 1984 by the Swiss climbers Erhard Loretan and Norbert Joos. They descended from the summit by the historic route on the North Face.

On the 8th April, Jean-Christophe arrives at Annapurna's base camp at 4,200 meters. He discovers the South Face and notices immediately that the route on the South Face is out of the question. Too much ice, and too dry in some places. It does not mater, as the East Ridge is a very, very nice route; not too technical, but very pleasing to the eye.

One the ascent permit, there are 3 Basques, an American, Ed Viesturs and his Finnish climbing partner Veikka Gustafsson and Jean-Christophe. Three camps are used on this route. Camp 1 at 5,400 meters, Camp 2 at 6,400 meters and Camp 3 at 7,000 meters. Five weeks later, Jean-Christophe will have only managed to get to 7,300 thanks to a nasty wind. It has not calmed since their arrival at base camp and has been between 100 and 160 km/h at 8,000 meters. Below 7,000 meters he was protected from it, but once he arrived on the ridge at about 7,300 meters, it was impossible to progress any further.

I was in contact with a meteorologist who gave me a daily bulletin. He too was worried about the wind which was blowing for some weeks without stopping. But then there was a break in the weather. The wind finally drops and there is good weather above 7,000 meters.

Jean-Christophe developed a climbing strategy for these windless three days so he could best take advantage of the break in the weather. 

3 days. Jean-Christophe makes a quick calculation to figure out how much time he would need to get to the summit and back to base camp. About 8 days. It is absolutely imperative to make the way on the East ridge during those 3 windless days, otherwise the trap [weather] might close in on him.

The East Ridge on round trip is 15km. 15km in the so-called Death Zone, between 7,500 and 8,091 meters. It is unbelievably long and extremely difficult. There is no escape if the wind gets up. He becomes the Annapurna's prey.

His decision is made. With the other members of the expedition he leaves Base Camp on the 11th May so that they can reach Camp 1 at 5,400 meters. On the 12th they arrive at Camp 2 and at Camp 3 on the 13th. This same day, I arrive at base camp so I can be closer to Jean-Christophe during the ascent. 

On the 14th he embarks on the ridge with one of the Basques, Alberto Inurrategi, who only needs to climb Annapurna to complete the 14 8,000-metre summits. The other members of the expedition choose to abandon the climb and return to Base Camp. The length of the ridge, its difficulty and the dangerous snow conditions at the Roc Noir passage lead them to take this difficult decision.

Thus, just two climbers left on this vastness..... We manage to talk over the radio with Jean-Christophe. It’s marvelous, but at the same time strange to be so near yet so far. He is finding that the route is magnificent, but long. Very long.

On the 14th May, in the evening, they bivouac on the ridge at about 7,400 meters. On the 15th May they continue their ascent without too many technical difficulties. It is already 5 days since they left base camp, they are tired and mood is quite low on this seemingly interminable ridge. In the evening, they bivouac at 7,900 meters, below the East Summit.

We talk over the radio. Jean-Christophe is near to the summit, but he has doubts. The weather forecast predicts little wind, yet they experienced regular 50/60 km/h winds all day during the day. I give him the latest bulletin that predicts, no wind for the 16th May and a progressively stronger wind during the day on the 17th.

Jean-Christophe is not sure whether he should leave the ridge on the 17th. He is hesitant and doubtful. An hour later they decide to carry on up to the summit that they can almost touch from where they are.

16th May – fatigue is a major factor but they concentrate and are very vigilant. According to Erhard Loretan's account, there is still a technical section with an abseil at 8,000 meters. Conditions aren’t so good: no snow and poor quality rocks. Jean-Christophe is a great technician, thankfully, and gets on with ‘Dry-tooling’ amongst the chaos of crumbling rocks, with traction ice axes, he finds an alternative route that rejoins the straight couloir at 7,900 meters, under the Summit of Annapurna,

The summit is there, 200 meters above his head. One step, another step. He continues and arrives on the summit at 10am. There is a sea of clouds beneath their feet.

At 10am on the 16th May, the radio crackles into life at Base Camp. I hear Jean-Christophe, shouting for joy on the summit! Emotions run high and we both cry.

For Jean-Christophe this has been his most difficult Himalayan climb. He has never felt so far from life [isolated] than during those 3 days on the ridge. He achieved a first which won’t, I don’t think, be repeated for a long time. What’s more, he is the first Frenchman on the summit of Annapurna since Benoit Chamoux in 1988, 14 years ago.

As well as achieving a personal goal on Annapurna, Jean-Christophe made an ascent that will leave its mark on the history of alpine and international Himalayan climbing. Jean-Christophe is a part of the unchallengeables, he is a great Mountain Man.

Katia Lafaille

Yes Katia he is a great Mountain Man! (We hope to post descriptions of the pictures in the coming days...) Enjoy !

Jean-Christophe Lafaille: Annapurna 2002

11 great pictures follow...


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