The strange thing about climbing new routes in China and Tibet is that after a few successful expeditions you suddenly start receiving the Japanese Alpine News. One day it just pops through the letterbox and then keeps coming for the next 15 years! It's a great record of the peaks of the region and the limited climbing activity that takes place there.
One of the key things is that it acts as a record of the activities of the great Tibet explorer and chronicler Tomatsu Nakamura or “Tom” to his friends.
While perusing the latest ‘News’ several years ago I was struck by a set of pictures of the four 7000m Nyainqentangla peaks. As well as referring to the highest peaks in the area the name Nyainqentangla is also applied to the whole mountain chain running west to east, north of Lhasa, in parallel with the Himalaya.
I had actually driven past these peaks years earlier in heavy cloud (a characteristic of the area) on my way to the East Nyainqentangla with Mick Fowler to make the first ascent of Manamcho (6264m). From the road, the potential of these peaks looked minimal but Tom’s pictures taken from the North-East showed a large North wall falling away from the four 7000m summits, with a particularly striking arête at the North-West end. A plan started to formulate!
Wanting to go to Tibet is very different from actually getting there. First of all the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA) is not an easy entity to contact. Email addresses exist, but getting a response is a different matter. Once in contact, the granting of permits is based on the local political situation. If the locals in that area have been kicking off against the authorities then you will never get a permit. If you do get a permit, the situation may change on a week-by-week basis leading to last minute cancellations. Back when I climbed with Mick, I had been applying for a peak in the East Nyainqentangla for eight years to no avail.
Tom’s pictures appeared to show a very impressive objective just half a day’s drive from Lhasa. Being the area most settled by the Chinese, it’s also one of the most stable. Eventually the CTMA agreed that a permit would be possible. Frankly, I was amazed!
Nine months later we arrived in Lhasa. Though it wasn't actually that easy. The CTMA announced the week before that they couldn't email me the Tibet entry pass so we would have to go and collect it in China before proceeding to Tibet. More hassle and expensive flight changes. On the subject of Tibet, lets just say it’s not cheap!
I have been climbing with Mick Fowler off and on for the last 15 years and consistently for the last 4 expeditions, but this year’s objective was over 7000m, a bit high for a now sexagenarian Mick, so I had to shop around for a new climbing partner.
Now this is not an easy decision as a climbing partner for such routes needs to be absolutely the right person. However, the pool of people interested in technical climbing on Himalayan peaks is actually not that big for some reason. I can’t understand why, it’s so much fun!
Anyhow I first met Nick Bullock in Namche Bazaar many years ago. At the time he seemed like a wild, intense, scary character but when I popped over to visit him in North Wales last year he was writing his second book, while cat sitting, and seemed an altogether calmer person. Clearly the last twelve years living out of the back of his van had been good for him. In the end we got on really well, never a cross word between us, just a steady stream of mild mutual abuse; just the way I like a team to behave.
Tibet had changed a lot since my last visit (9 years earlier). Lhasa was about five times bigger, with high-rise buildings everywhere. The Tibetan quarter is now totally swamped with new settlers. The road network is totally overloaded with vehicles, though I was pleased to see that many of them are now electric, which improves the air quality a lot.
Once you head out of Lhasa all the small towns have grown considerably, with extensive Chinese developments everywhere. It’s only when you get into the remote villages and farms that things look pretty much as they always have here, (excepting the satellite dishes, mobile phone masts etc). Its quite a surprise when a yak herder whips out his iPhone 6 and demonstrates that he has a 3G signal just an hour’s walk from your basecamp!
Acclimatisation made what is actually a very short journey to basecamp take a long time. Lhasa is at 3700m so we had two nights there. We then drove for ½ day to Damshung at 4200m and spent two nights there. After that, we spent a night at the road head at 4700m in the headman’s house then walked for just four hours to basecamp with packhorses. So it took six days travel to get all the way in and at the end of the expedition just six hours travel back to Lhasa!
As we arrived at the mountains, (in bad weather), there was much confusion over which valley we should actually go into. The maps of the area were quite poor and location names very confused. In the end it was worked out, but the locals warned us that we were approaching the mountain from the wrong side, as it was too steep from that valley. To us, that of course sounded brilliant.
They also warned us that the area was infested with bears that would “bite you in the face”. Nick’s face was a real picture when he heard that, (look up Nick Bullock and bears on the internet to understand why).
At basecamp, we had no staff such as the usual cook and tea boy (couldn't afford them in Tibet) so it was just us two for a month, pretty intense with someone you don't know all that well.
Basecamp was in a pretty location and once settled in with our psychedelic cooking shelter we felt right at home and ready to explore. At this stage we still didn't know if we were in the right valley or not, so there was still a bit of tension in the air.
On the first day Nick decided to take it easy (bed is his natural habitat) while I wondered up the valley. Expectations were low due to heavy cloud but then a few hours up the valley it cleared and there it was, big and steep!
Despite the poor weather we decided to press on with some acclimatisation. You might as well sit around with a headache feeling sick when the weather is crap. Acclimatisation involved walking up the glacial moraine below the north face of Njainqentangla before heading up a 6000m peak just opposite.
Our original plan had been to climb the north buttress of Nyainqentangla’s main summit, which looked just brilliant in Tom’s pictures. However as we walked below the face we realised there was a hidden monster. The lowest 7000m peak and first on the ridge, Nyainqentagla South East, had a recessed North face not really visible from anywhere other than directly below it. As we edged into position the clouds cleared to reveal a huge North buttress that was just incredible. It was the sort of route you always dreamed about finding and here it was, right in front of us. We were speechless.
The buttress itself was very steep in the lower half before giving a bit and forming an impressive arête in the upper section. The headwall of the lower face in particular looked problematic. Steep rock with what appeared to be a thin veneer of ice, looked like it might go, but only just. If that veneer of ice turned out to be just a bit of powder snow from the last storm then we would have big problems.
Hardly able to contain our excitement we headed back down to basecamp for a rest and to get ourselves prepared for the main event.
I really like the time spent at basecamp between acclimatising and eventually going for the route. It's a lot of fun and really relaxed for some reason. Eating food, reading books, tinkering with gear, washing!
Our first attempt on the route is best forgotten about. We camped under the face, it dumped snow, the tent nearly blew away and we retreated. Lets just call it a gear carry to Advanced Base Camp!
We needed to let the mountain slough some snow for a few days so headed back to basecamp and waited. Time passed with the standard assortment of basecamp activities; reading, bread-making, eating enormous meals, boredom, debates on whether to take a tooth brush or not, all the usual stuff. Eventually conditions were deemed to be suitable, (or as good as it was going to get), so we set off for our second attempt.
Luckily the only two really nice days of the trip coincided with our walk back up and our first day on the face. (It didn't last though)!
Camped once again under the face things were looking good, perfect weather and a lot less snow on the face than before. We decided that the direct start looked a bit thin in the first rock-band. Knowing that there is nothing more dispiriting than failing on the first pitch, we opted for an alternative option. A gully to the left offered more ice and would allow us to traverse into the centre of the face a bit higher up and, as an added bonus, we would avoid the regular spindrift sloughs coming down the centre of the face.
I always enjoy the walk into the foot of a face, as the perspective changes the face rears up alarmingly, but as the upper face disappears and the lower pitches are visible in more detail, suddenly the whole thing looks more manageable. I suppose it’s burying your head in the sand, but I always think it’s best to consider such a big route just one pitch at a time. Deal with what’s in front of you and worry about the rest later. If you think about the route as a whole it’s all too easy to get intimidated.
On this occasion, the foot of the face was especially significant because it was actually the first time that myself and Nick had ever tied into a rope together!
Once on the face we soon discovered that we weren’t going to get any névé on this trip. The snow was deep, really deep and the ice only came when things steepened up and the powder had sloughed off. That first day, working our way up the lower slopes was really hard work, almost never-ending post holing as we worked our way towards our planned bivy ledge just beneath the steepening rock bands.
I was convinced that the snow arête we were aiming for would give us an excellent camp spot, but it turned out to be knife edge sharp with rocks just below the surface and despite our best efforts, only produced two semi-reclining sitting ledges. Grim! With us on separate ledges there was no way to put up the tent so I just wrapped myself in the fabric, pulled on the duvet jacket and settled down to try and melt some water as the wind made a nuisance of itself by constantly blowing out the stove.
Open bivouacs in mediocre weather are best avoided, a bad first night on the mountain is a real recipe for retreat.
As the sun came up we could see that the good weather had gone and we were back to the usual Nyainqentangla cloud and precipitation but luckily the night had not been that bad. Breakfast was hastily consumed and we were soon ready to get stuck into the technical ground above.
From our bivy ledge, things stepped up alarmingly. From below we had thought that this might well be the crux of the route - a very steep rock band crossing the full width of the face. In most places it was too steep for ice but in the centre there was a thin veneer of white covering the rock. Whether this was powder snow or ice remained to be seen and we knew that today we would find out if the line would go.
We traversed diagonally up and rightwards, aiming for some steep runnels and the elusive ice. Much of what had looked like ice from below turned out to be powder snow stuck to the underside of overhangs and a thin delaminated snow crust on the vertical rock itself. Luckily, a series of shallow runnels did hold some goodish ice. Often this was not thick enough to take a full ice screw but if you dug around on the adjacent rock, odd bits of protection were available. Slowly but surely we worked our way up some very absorbing pitches, occasionally hauling the sacks.
The climbing was excellent; Nick went so far as to compare it to the upper part of the Colton–McIntyre on the Grandes Jorasses.
Eventually though the groove line ended and Nick was forced to climb a steep, rock wall. Fortunately, beneath its veneer of snow were a series of flakes that allowed for good, if scary, hooking. A fine lead.
Then we were though the rock band and looking for somewhere to camp. Determined to have a better night’s sleep I announced that it was time to test out my latest version of the ‘snow hammock’. Originally a Russian invention, (they used the fabric base of a portaledge to trap snow and build an artificial ledge), I have experimented and produced a number of lightweight versions of this aid to vertical sleeping.
Basically it's a large rectangle of fabric that you attach to the face with ice screws, fill with snow and then pitch your tent on top of.
Version 1 was used last year on Gave Ding with Mick and proved to be effective but just not robust enough; a fact we discovered when it froze to the face and ripped as it was pulled off. Version 2 is a totally different beast! High tech un-ripable fabrics and Kevlar webbing make it both strong and lightweight. It worked brilliantly and we ended up with a nearly flat camp spot in a truly ridiculous position.
It had been a tough day and we awoke feeling pretty exhausted. From this point we had two options, either follow the crest of the buttress or the more mixed ground on the right. Concerns about the avalanche potential on some of the snow fields and the feasibility of some of the rock bands meant that the crest of the buttress was clearly the best option and we duly opted for it. Traversing leftwards we hit the crest and climbed an arête in a pretty wild position.
The previous two days had tired us both more than we realised so we decided to make day three a short one and we stopped as soon as we could find another good spot for the snow hammock. The ledge was even better this time and the tent fitted comfortably. In the evening we had great views of the adjacent Nam Tso Lake and could quite literally see the moisture being sucked off the surface of the water, ready to dump on us as snow when it hit the mountainside.
Now we were following the crest of the buttress the setting was dramatic but as the route became less technical the snow just got deeper and deeper which, combined with the altitude, made for some lung-busting pitches!
The fourth camp was good but that night it started to dump snow and at 6700m you suddenly start to realise what a serious position you are in. Retreat down the line would be difficult due to the lack of ice making abolokov threads time consuming to find and we didn't have enough rack to abseil on rock anchors all the way. Upwards to the summit and hopefully down an easier ridge was the best option, but all this snow could make that option hazardous for avalanches.
Dawn brought more snow and cloud. Post holing upwards we made the summit about midday. It was the second ascent of the peak and my first time over 7000m. We were both knackered. There wasn't any view due to the clouds, so after a quick selfie I was keen to get down.
I was pretty sure our best option was to descend the East ridge until it terminated in a huge cliff, at which point we would abseil down the north side on abolokov’s before regaining the ridge again at a col. From here it looked like an easy walk down to the valley and basecmp. In the end dense fog turned the relatively easy, but quite complicated, East ridge into a real navigational challenge. I loved it! However, after falling into three bergschrunds I decided to call it quits for the day. The tent fitted quite nicely into the last hole I had made and we pitched up.
By now there was little food left, it dumped snow all night and we didn't actually know where we were due to the dense cloud, so it wasn't the best night ever. Dawn brought poor visibility so we stayed put for a few hours until it improved and then pushed on. At this stage avalanches were our main concern but there wasn't actually anything we could do about it, as we had to get down. There was no Plan B at this stage. We accepted the risk and cracked on.
Fortunately the cloud cleared and allowed us to identify our location more exactly, allowing us to descend to the col without incident. From here we had planned to descend to the North towards our basecamp. However from the col it was clear that the southern slope was easier and safer, even if it did descend into an unknown valley. We had no map, but it was a no brainer really and got us safely down to the moraine without incident.
The following day we followed the valley down passing through a purgatory of loose boulders and soft muddy moraine. Not the most fun I have had and a day I don't care to repeat. Amazingly the valley opened out onto grassy slopes just above the small hamlet where our Liaison Officer was living with the village headman. Perfect! Big celebration followed with many rounds of rancid yak butter teas. (It turns the stomach, but you get used to it!)
The last remaining issue was that basecamp still remained in another valley and needed to be retrieved. Nick refused to get out of bed the following day but I managed to recruit some local yak herders with motorcycles to drive me round to our valley and help carry out the gear. Due to the use of bikes I was back by lunchtime to find Nick running the local crèche; teaching English numbers to a large group of local children. From hard mountain man to Nepalese schoolmarm. How the mighty have fallen!
Photo credits: Paul Ramsden and Nick Bullock.