Climbing the Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III
The Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III (7,555m) rises above the head of the Seti Kola gorge in the Nepal Himalaya, and is one of the greatest unsolved challenges in world mountaineering. Whilst the mountain itself saw its first ascent by an Indian expedition back in 1961 via the Northeast Face, the massive 2300 metre Southeast Ridge has seen several attempts spread over the last thirty-six years. But no climbers have yet succeeded on this daunting, technical, and extremely serious line in one of the most inaccessible parts of the Himalaya.
The awe-inspiring Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III. Menk Rufibach / Red Bull
The Southeast Ridge was first attempted in 1981 by young British alpinists Nick Colton and Tim Leach. They got about two-thirds of the way up the ridge, and to within about 1000 metres of the summit. Despite the fact they didn’t succeed, their attempt on the ridge was one of the most impressive pieces of high-altitude climbing that had been done in the Himalaya up to that point. Another attempt in 2010 by fellow Brits Nick Bullock, Pete Benson and Matt Helliker was thwarted below Colton and Leach’s previous 1981 high point due to high winds and generally poor weather.
A very snowy camp under Annapurna III during the 2016 Austrian attempt. Menk Rufibach / Red Bull
David Lama acclimatizing on the East Ridge of Annapurna III. Alex Blümel / Red Bull
Following the 2010 British attempt, Nick Bullock described what makes Annapurna III and the Seti Kola region so unique: “This is one of the most special areas in the Himalayas. In fact the place has only ever seen a handful of people enter through the sheer cliffs of the Seti Kola, which soon becomes obvious by the fact there are no paths, tracks, foot-worn formations, or human markings of any kind. The moraine between the top of the Seti Kola gorge and the col at the head of the cirque is a massive untamed jumble filled with icefalls, tumbling blocks, fins of towering rubble, and a grass meadow. All of these are virtually untouched by human hands.”
Alex Blümel acclimatizing for the Austrian attempt on the Southeast ridge of Annapurna III in April 2016. David Lama / Red Bull
"The moraine between the top of the Seti Kola gorge and the col at the head of the cirque is a massive untamed jumble of icefalls, tumbling blocks, & fins of towering rubble"
- Nick Bullock
The mind-bending scale of the 2300 metre high Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III seen from basecamp. David Lama / Red Bull
In 2016, three of Europe’s leading contemporary mountaineers – Austrians David Lama, Hansjörg Auer and Alex Blümel – made another attempt on the Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III. After an acclimatization climb on the East Ridge, they reached a high point on the Southeast Ridge at circa 6500 metres – a similar height to the point reached by Tim Leach and Nick Colton in 1981. After three days of climbing over what Auer described as “really difficult and exposed terrain”, the three climbers decided to retreat in the face of poor weather conditions. They made a bivouac, and then abseiled back down to the glacier on their fourth day on the mountain.
Hansjörg Auer and Alex Blümel climbing technical terrain in high winds on the Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III. David Lama / Red Bull
David Lama later described the some of the challenges the three Austrians faced on Annapurna III: “On almost all pitches, difficult mixed climbing forced us to hang our ice tools on our harnesses and resort to direct aid. Due to the cold, the wind, and the strong snowfall, we climbed in full winter outfits. In an uncomfortably tight chimney, I inched a few feet up, and as I couldn’t move any further and lost grip with my crampons, I slid a few feet back down.”
"Due to the cold, the wind, and the strong snowfall, we climbed in full winter outfits. In an uncomfortably tight chimney, I inched a few feet up, lost grip with my crampons, and slid a few feet back down”
- David Lama
The vast scale of the Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III seen by helicopter. One of the Austrian climbers is just visible in the lower part of the image. Menk Rufibach / Red Bull
After the expedition returned, Hansjörg Auer added to Lama’s thoughts on the difficulty of the route: “It was on the second day into the climb that we experienced how demanding this route is. The conditions for climbing were horrible. It started snowing with high winds before noon. The same scenario was then repeated on the third day.”
High winds batter David Lama on the Col of the South East ridge of Annapurna III on April 29, 2016. Alexander Blümel / Red Bull
“It was the aesthetic appeal of the line that drove us, rather than its difficulty or the high altitudes” Alex Blümel later said of the Austrians’ motives for their expedition. In Ed Douglas’s recent book The Magician’s Glass, Nick Colton recalls a similar, primal emotion on first seeing the Southeast Ridge prior to his attempt in 1981: “I thought, for fuck’s sake. It was awesome.”
David Lama abseiling off the Southeast ridge of Annapurna III on April 28, 2016. Alexander Blümel / Red Bull
One day someone will climb the entire Southeast Ridge of Annapurna III and write a new chapter in the fascinating history of one of the most compelling high altitude mountaineering routes in the world. Veteran American alpinist Conrad Anker has expressed the desire for a pure style in which the line might finally be climbed: “My hope for this amazing route is that it will be climbed by fair means. If climbing were a solution to an engineering problem, it would cease to be an art. Art is the beauty in mountaineering.”
Hansjörg Auer, Alex Blümel and David Lama acclimatizing for their attempt on the Southeast ridge of Annapurna III in April 2016. David Lama/Red Bull
“My hope for this amazing route is that it will be climbed by fair means. If climbing were a solution to an engineering problem, it would cease to be an art. Art is the beauty in mountaineering”
- Conrad Anker
You can find out more about David Lama's climbing on his Red Bull athlete page