Tibetan Travels 1999
By Derek Buckle (Gary was one of the other expedition members)
What did I know about Tibet other than it was a mountainous country with an average height above 4,000m, had many monasteries, had a strong Buddhist tradition and was now dominated by the Chinese? Thus, given the chance to explore some less frequented parts of Tibet, and attempt one or more virgin peaks above 6,000m, was too much of a temptation, despite the almost prohibitive cost and the rather early period of travel. Organised by John Town, whom I had met in Georgia last year, the plan was to fly via Kathmandu to Lhasa and from there travel by road to the Nyenchen Tanglha range, recently made famous by Chris Bonington's attempted ascent of Sepu Kangri in 1998. The Nyenchen Tanglha mountains form a long arc just north of Lhasa and Sepu Kangri lies in the eastern part of the range. Our party of six, however, was to visit the western region near the highest mountain, Jomo Kangri, a little over 7,000m high, and which I was assured would be in the monsoon rain shadow during July.
To begin with everything ran smoothly, except that our main freight, containing such essential items as the tents and climbing ropes, seemed to have trouble leaving the UK. In fact, despite having been 'sent' two weeks before we left the UK it was still not in Kathmandu when we arrived! Frantic telephone calls to the UK handlers eventually located the errant package which, despite being fluorescent yellow and weighing in at 60 kilos, had been overlooked at Heathrow. Much to our relief, after visiting previously unheard of Middle Eastern venues it eventually turned up the day before we were due to fly to Lhasa. The 1 hour flight from Kathmandu to Lhasa must rank as one of the world's best, since it takes a line initially parallel with the Himalayas before crossing to the east of Mount Everest. Many of the world's highest mountains are on display; Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyo, Makalu and Kanchenjunga, to name but a few. The ominous looking monsoon clouds boiling up from the Indian Ocean were visible too!
Photo 1: Familar mountain from the comfort of your seat!
A strong Chinese military presence at Lhasa's Gongga airport reminded us that this was not the Tibet of old, but apart from discouraging us from taking photographs they all appeared very friendly. Indeed, the young female soldiers were very attractive and even smiled! After being welcomed by the Tibetan Mountaineering Association and presented with traditional silk scarves, we were soon whisked away by coach for the 100km trip to Lhasa itself, passing one of the major Buddhist shrines en route. At Lhasa the 3,700m altitude soon became apparent in the form of headaches, a change from the explosive intestinal upsets so characteristic of Kathmandu. Boring Chinese architecture now characterises much of Lhasa, but fortunately the Potala Palace was left unscathed during the Cultural Revolution and many damaged monasteries have been substantially rebuilt. Like all other visitors before us, we visited the imposing Potala, but the Jokang Temple (the most holy place in Tibet) and more especially the Drepung Monastery, were places of religious worship rather than state museums. The monks at both of the latter two monasteries were extremely welcoming and typical of all others that we met in Tibet.
Photo 2: Potala Palace, Lhasa.
Our next stop was at Yangpachen (4,300m), the site of thermal springs and a geothermal power station. Interestingly our accommodation here was in the power station itself, but we did have the opportunity to laze in the enormous thermal pool while enjoying our first terrestrial glimpse of snow capped mountains. Headaches still kept appearing at regular intervals, but at least I am better off than Gary who has just informed me that he now has the shits to accompany his cold, altitude headache and athlete's foot! From here the land cruisers came into their own since the road deteriorated somewhat. The scenery, however, was fantastic as grander and grander mountains gradually appeared. Eventually we stopped for our first sight of Tangmonga (6,326m), the first of three impressive unclimbed mountains that we planned to attempt, although this was a view of the SE face while we hoped to climb the SW ridge. Later we crossed a 5,345m pass before reaching our first camp site (5,045m) at the head of the Jomo Chu valley. More headaches, but after few aspirins and some food this eventually subsided. Soon after our arrival we were surrounded by many colourful and friendly Tibetan nomads, all anxious to help. It seemed as though all of the local villagers had come out to visit and we had lots of photographic opportunities that were certainly not wasted. That evening John and I climbed the local peak (5,345m) for some additional acclimatisation and to get good views of the sun setting over Jomo Kangri. What an impressive mountain, it is no wonder that John and another climber failed to climb it two years previously since it has no obvious line of weakness and the long summit ridge held threateningly large cornices. We were later to hear major avalanches thundering down the east face, although the most obvious route from the south appeared to be objectively safe.
Photo 3: Jomo Kangri 7048m
Yaks, that were to transport our equipment to base camp, arrived early the next day along with an assortment of local villagers. Loading these skittish animals was a skilled art, but after a number of upsets reminiscent of rodeos we were on our way up the Jomo Chu valley and beneath the east face of Jomo Kangri. There was excitement en route as the yaks continuously discharged our gear over the valley floor, and at one point we were concerned that some would be severely damaged, if not lost. Fortunately, our Sherpa Pemba Churi was as good at keeping rear guard as he was at providing us with varied and appetising meals so everything eventually arrived in tact. We were now able to see the Tangmonga range, and more specifically the SE ridge that was our objective, although this was hidden when we reached base camp at 5,030m, about 1km short of the Jomo Glacier terminal moraine. More headaches now and more persistent also, so clearly I have not yet fully acclimatised. At 158/115 my blood pressure seemed a bit high also (shouldn't I be verging on death? I felt a bit like it) although at 55bpm my pulse was doing fine.
Next day was a rest day during which my headache vanished never to return - blood pressure remained high nonetheless, whatever that meant. We set up the prayer flags, tested the loo and stuffed our faces with all manner of food. We also had visits from the locals. But now it was time to make a carry to our intended ABC on the ridge. A yak trail led up the moraine and soon became steeper as we ascended the rounded ridge proper. It was quite a relief to reach a depression at 5,525m which with a little reconstruction work would take three two-man tents. No sooner had we pitched the tents when torrential monsoon hail started and we dived for cover. Since we had to descend to BC there was no escaping a thorough dousing. It rained/snowed/hailed all of the next day and this was to be the pattern for the next couple of weeks when we would get one, or perhaps two, good days interspersed with heavy mist and snow. Eventually, however, we colonised ABC and waited for a good spell.
Photo 4: ABC at 5,525m (Jomo Kangri 7048m in backrgound).
We were self-catering now and the meals were less adventurous than we were getting at BC. The weather continued to be capricious, but we managed an equipment dump on the start Tangmonga's SW ridge proper at around 5,800m and returned in poor weather. Poor visibility also heralded the start of the next day, but at lunchtime I managed to solo a peak on the southern end of Tanmonga's SE ridge by way of its SW spur and snowy west flank. The previously unclimbed and unnamed summit at 5,850m was characterised by a large capping stone and was really just a high point on ridge. Thunder and the approaching dark monsoon clouds from the SE caused me to curtail my planned northwards traverse of the rocky ridge to a true summit, and necessitated a cautious descent of the steep slope up which I had climbed.
Photo 5: Tangmonga (6,326m) SW Ridge - rising from left to right.
The next day was to be our summit attempt and leaving at 7.00 we were soon at the equipment stash and roped up ready to climb. The ridge was fairly horizontal for about 500m but because it was very notched and exceptionally loose we were moving very slowly. With poor weather closing in it was clear that we were unlikely to complete the return trip in the time available, and Gary demonstrated the major problem by heaving increasingly large unstable blocks off the ridge. At 5,920m we decided that discretion was the better part of valour and agreed to retreat. At this point I learned that John had earlier taken a fall when his hand and foot holds had simultaneously parted company with the ridge, so this decision was clearly sensible. It was a disappointment nevertheless, especially as we now had insufficient time to either explore alternative routes or to look at the other major mountains for which we had permits.
While three of the group descended to BC, Gary, John and myself were looking at an alternative peak on the SW ridge as a consolation prize and only had to wait a couple of days before we could attempt it. Initially we had planned to ascend the nearest peak by an obvious snow gully, but as we approached an alternative route up the higher neighbouring mountain began to look attractive - especially since it was higher and appeared to be a more exciting ascent. Indeed this is what it turned out to be. After traversing the boulder field below the south face of Tangmonga we entered the prominent right branch of a Y-shaped SW couloir leading to a peak with an anvil-shaped summit. At first the average angle of this couloir was about 40 degrees, but the appearance of small avalanches soon convinced us that we would be safer on the central spur at an angle of about 50 degrees. Just below the ridge the angle steepend even more and we were forced to traverse right to reach a notch in the ridge proper. At this point we were on rock, not solid, but rock nonetheless and we roped up. Leading the way I tested the first steep step on the rising traverse to the summit. Disconcertingly a rather large section fell into the void. Cautiously moving back it was possible to use ice axes to ascend a short but steep wall to emerge on comparatively stable granite. Two rope lengths later and we were on the summit at 6,025m (N 29.93, E 90.09), which we were later to call Machag (Tibetan for blacksmith's stone) in recognition of its unique anvil-shaped protuberance. At only about 50cm wide, and of a similar thickness, the summit was an exciting place to be, especially with a large void beneath our feet, but we were very pleased to have completed a first ascent of an unnamed 6,000m peak by an excellent AD- route. We had plans to traverse the ridge and descend by the snow ramp that we had seen earlier, but time was pressing and we had little option but to descend the way we had come. This was not without excitement, especially since the snow was now soft and covering unconsolidated boulders, but apart from John sustaining a twisted knee, we arrived back at ABC almost 9 hours after having left it.
Photo 6: Machag 6,025m (N 29.93, E 90.09).
Photo 7: Gary on the summit block (blacksmith's stone) of Machag 6,025m (N 29.93, E 90.09).
The next day we returned to BC from where we explored the right hand (true left) moraine of the Jomo Glacier. It was on this exploratory trip that we identified a possible alternative route up Tangmonga via the glacier descending from the NW face, but there was no time left to give it a try. We also identified a route onto the Jomo Glacier that provided access to the col between Kyama and Jomo Kangri, but again exploration of that as an access route to further untrodden peaks would have to await a subsequent trip.
All that remained now was to evacuate camp and return by road to Kathmandu. We did this via Shigatse, with its impressive gompa, Tingri and Zang-mu using the route that those wishing to traverse the Himalaya on bicycle would take. In places ëroad' is rather a misleading term for this washed out dirt track and I would certainly not recommend the cycle trip to anyone other than a reviled enemy! Altogether though this was an interesting, albeit expensive, trip, but my recommendation would be to choose September or October rather than July to be more certain of good weather.
Derek 8th September 1999