Himalayan Journal vol.44
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Soli S. Mehta
  4. ZHANGZI - AUTUMN, 1987
  5. BRITISH XIXABANGMA Expedition, 1987
    (LT COL M. W. H. DAY)
  6. MENLUNGTSE, 1987
    (S. K. BERRY)
  8. RATHONG, 1987
  10. MAKALU
  11. CHO OYU, 1987
    (W. J. POWELL)
  16. A RETURN TO LINGTI, 1987
    (J. K. PAUL and S. N. DHAR)
    (A. V. SAUNDERS)
    (N. D. JAYAL)



THE IDEA OF THE Irish Zhangzi Tibet Expedition was born on the flight home after climbing Z8 in 1984. We wanted a peak over 7000 m, and we wanted a new route - an unclimbed 7000 m peak was asking a bit too much. Having started my Himalayan reading in the thirties, when the British attempts on the north side of Everest were big news, I have always had an ambition to visit that side (even though an attempt on Everest itself has never appealed to me) and I suggested Zhangzi as a suitable target. 7580 m high, it had only been climbed twice up to 1985, both times by the NE ridge from the East Rongbuk glacier. There was a variety of other routes possible, of varying standards of difficulty. We wrote to the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA), got their schedule of charges, and realised that we would have to organise a major fund-raising campaign. We booked the north ridge for pre-monsoon 1987 and started fund-raising. The difficulty of raising money and a health problem necessitated postponing the trip until post-monsoon 1987, and since an Australian party had already booked the north ridge (approaching from the Zhangzi glacier) we were restricted to an approach from the main Rongbuk glacier The aim was to climb the steep southwest spur, and descend the north ridge.

The main party went into Tibet via Kathmandu, while Danny and I flew via Beijing in order to finish our negotiations with the CMA, and to pick up Zhao Li and Jackson. To everybody's great surprise, both sections of the expedition arrived at Zhangmu, the border town on the Kathmandu-Lhasa road, within an hour of each other; if only the rest of the trip had gone with such clockwork precision! The first mishap occurred the next evening when, because of a bureaucratic row between Beijing and Lhasa, our two jeeps deserted us at the junction where the Rongbuk track leaves the main road.

This meant all 14 of us and our gear had to pile onto one lorry, whose driver refused to do anything but take us direct in one day to th« biN camp at 6146 m, We had planned to dump the gear at bale, audi using a jeep to carry camping gear, to acclimatize by spending three days or io walking up to base, instead we were all decanted at the Rongbuk base on the evening of 8 September with appalling headaches and no strength at all. Richard, Leslie, and Sarah sensibly grabbed some food, a stove, and a tent, and went back to Chodzong at 4000 m on the lorry; the rest of us sat it out, staggering with difficulty through the chores of pitching tents and cooking a meal.

Frontispiece and Photo 1
Over the next few days we slowly acclimatized, walking up to the East Rongbuk glacier, crossing, and making friends with the other six parties (including our Australian rivals) who were camped around us, The monsoon was late finishing, and both Everest and Zhangzi were plastered white with snow. Everyone was frustrated, since all were held up waiting, some for the avalanche risk on the higher slopes to decrease, others (like ourselves) for yaks to carry up to advanced base. On the third day Donal showed symptoms which Geraldine was fortunately able to diagnose immediately as cerebral oedema. The problem was to get him to a lower altitude, in the absence of our jeep. The other expeditions had three jeeps between them, but all were away on messages, so we had to start carrying him down the road. Some lorries arrived with men and materials to build the base for the television mast for next year's monster Chinese-Nepalese-Japanese Everest traverse expedition, and Zhao Li and I eventually persuaded one driver to go down and take Donal at least to the Dzakar Chu, below the 4000 m level. They had started carrying Donal at about noon, but it was nearly 9 p.m, before the lorry picked him up, a few kilometres below the Hongbuk monastery. At that stage ne was almost unconscious and would probably have died in a few hours at that altitude. The lorry took him to Tashidzom that night, and went on to Xegar the following morning. Mike, Danny and Frank, the carriers, came straight back on the lorry, Geraldine stayed with Donal. Some days later he strolled into base camp, quite recovered, having walked up from the Rongbuk track junction!

We completed the move to advanced base camp in two weeks, losing 4 days because the promised yaks were late. I won't quickly forget my first sight of ABC- a delightful grassy hollow in the moraine, with a stream and a small lake. Zhangzi was out of sight, but a five minute walk brought the whole cirque at the head of the main Rongbuk glacier from Khumbutse through the Lho la to Everest and Zhangzi into view. As well as giving us the first (and somewhat daunting) sight of our route, we could see all those features of Everest's North Face which we had so often read about - the First and Second Steps, the Hornbein Couloir. The last was of special interest to me, since the Hornbein-Unsoeld traverse always seems to me to be the finest ever climbing performance on Everest. We shared the hollow with the American North Face expedition, whose large Stars-and-Stripes fluttered in the ever-present wind.

The advance party had already set up CI on the furthest tip of moraine, just near the foot of Zhangzi's SW spur. The spur was repellent; the two rock bands were plastered with unstable-looking snow, and a succession of snow slides dribbled down every line of weakness. It seemed unlikely that it would come into condition before winter, so we looked at the easy north ridge. Phill and Frank reached Tilman's col (which now seems to have the tongue-twisting name of Zhang Zhangzi la) and looked up at the lower section of the ridge, which had been hidden in all the photographs we had used for planning. A twisting succession of rock pinnacles revealed themselves, in the same state as the SW spur, and equally out of condition. By descending to the Zhangzi glacier, and climbing up that, it would be feasible to reach the ridge in its upper, snowy section, but that would mean invading Australian territory. Frank and Phill descended, and a major discussion took place in advance base. Richard had been up past the American CI, and sang the praises of the south ridge from Everest's North Col. In the circumstances it seemed the best solution, though logistically it created difficulties, as the approach was much longer than we had planned for.

The rest of the party (especially Donal who held the record for carries) had been stocking CI, and we started immediately to set up higher, camps ready for a summit attempt. Frank, Phill, Dermot, Shay, Mike, and Richard, with Danny to help, set up C2 on 2 October. However, loads were very heavy and in unconsolidated snow, they only managed to get to 6050 m, leaving a long pull to the North Col. Next day Donal and I went up to the Lho la, for acclimatization, and had a good view of Frank and Phill toiling towards the col, with Mike and Richard carrying part way for them. We thought they could not possibly reach it, but an American at their C3 saw them reach the col at 7.30 p.m. after a 10£ hour climb, and radioed down to their CI, who told us. With so many people on the mountains, news always travelled fast! This was really a tremendous feat, 1000 m of ascent with heavy loads through deep snow. We woke on 4 October to a day of raw cold, with cloud billowing over the Lho la. Summit prospects looked poor, especially as it began to snow in the evening. Next morning we woke to six inches of snow at Cl, and about midday Dermot, Shay, Mike and Richard came down from C2, having waded through deep soft new snow. There was no sign of the other two, but the escape plan for snowfall had always been to go down the far side of the col, rather than risk the avalanche-prone west side, so we all retreated to advance base. A tired Frank and Phill walked into camp the next afternoon, having circumnavigated Zhangzi.

Frank describes the abortive summit attempt:

'The first night on the col was very cold (-30°C) and windy; altitude plus heavy rucksacks took their toll and when next morning the peak was covered in cloud we postponed our attempt by a day. At 3 p.m. it started to snow, a storm raged all night and by morning in a near whiteout Phill and I decided to descend to the East Rongbuk glacier using the Colorado Americans' fixed ropes. For the next three hours we engaged in a struggle for our lives in deep floury snow. Phill dug out fixed ropes from five feet of snow and on the final slope was avalanched when a huge one and a half foot thick slab broke off under his weight. Luckily I was on the last ten foot of fixed rope and was able to hold him after an initial flight to the end of the rope. We waded from there to advanced base of the NE ridge expedition, where Doug Scott plied us with tea and gave us a tent for the night. Next day we descended to the main Rongbuk glacier, and ascended to our ABC, a solid 7 1/2 hours walking, encircling Zhangzi at glacier level with heavy sacks.’

We stayed in ABC for a couple of days to let the snow clear and then set off once more towards the North Col. Donal, now fully recovered, strengthened the team, and the route was made easier by putting in another camp (C3) at the foot of the col. We reckoned to be able to make three successive attempts on the summit from the North Col; Frank and Mike were to be the first pair, moving up to C3 on 11 October. Thus it was a great disappointment when Mike came down through CI (where Leslie, Sarah, and I were) on the afternoon of the 12th on his way to see Geral-dine at ABC to get a cure for acute shoulder pain. The next morning the other two went to the Lho La (everybody in the party reached the Lho La) while I went up to C2. I stopped to chat with the Americans at their CI; they were preparing their final assault, but without great optimism since their last camp (4) was too low. I arrived at C2 about 12.30 p.m. in time to see four well-spaced dots disappear over the crest of the col. Danny, who had gone up to C3 very early that morning to use some of our precious few minutes of film to record the start of the assault, came down and told me that Frank, Phill, Shay and Dermot had all gone up to the col. We only had one small tent (a Peapod) up there, but there was obviously time to dig a snow-hole. Later that evening Mike arrived up, Geraldine having reduced the pain to bearable proportions with a selection of pills. The morning of the 14th was fine, and the wind seemed less strong - a good day for the summit? Danny went down to the American camp to paint, Mike went up to C3; J waited. About 5 p.m. I heard footsteps; it was Frank and Phill; they did not need to say anything - there had not been time for them to get to the top and get down. But let Frank tell the story:

1 checked the clear sky at first light and realised that the wind which had spent the night attempting to blow us off our airy perch had dropped. Phill indicated that he was well. I set a pot of snow to melt on the stove while we dressed. Not much to put on as I had worn most of my clothes that night when the temperature dropped to -26'C. We checked on Shay and Dermot sleeping m another of "Colorado's", tents. Altitude sickness ruled Shay out for the day and Dermot thought he would see how Phill and I got on. A quick brew and we put on crampons and headed for the south ridge.

We had Reached the Chang la the day before from C3 at 6500 m. Three and a half hours it took to climb the col; route finding consisted of avoiding wirid slab and soft snow sections and climbing parallel to an ice-fault. In the last 100 m the up-draught of the wind that raked the upper ridges of Everest and Zhangzi and the col put our Lowe Alpine clothing to the test. Outer gloves were as imperative as hoods, and over-pants were put on hastily. On arrival on the col, we discovered our Peapod tent, Thermarest mattresses, stove and food had all blown away.

We had brought shovels to dig a snowhole for such a contingency, but we couldn't help casting an eye on three "Colorado" tents snowed into the col. Investigation revealed a Canadian, Geoff Creighton, in one tent. He offered us the use of the two others for the night, and told us of his attempt earlier that day on Everest with a companion, Steve, who was still up there. Geoff had turned back due to cold and wind, and was worried about Steve who had radioed down complaining of frostbite in hands and feet. It looked like we might have to help in a rescue, but before we were ready to go in the morning, Steve turned up, having reached the Yellow Band; "blown off my feet twice in 100 mph gusts" he told us.

Now we were going for the summit of Zhangzi. From the start the going was soft. Despite the -26°C and 40 mph winds of the night, the snow had not consolidated, creating snow conditions more akin to deser sand than snow at high altitude. As we progressed it got worss, then Phill said that if it did not improve he would quit. Phill, a professional guide with a lot of snow experience was worried by the likely dangers of our return journey, tired and in worsening conditions, with the day's sun having softened the snow, and the almost inevitable return of the fierce wind. I urged hire to continue until conditions forced us to stop. He went on anothei 50 m. I was kicking up a steep slope. Despite kicking my steps Ugh and wide apart they were still collapsing into one another. Phill before descending handed over to me the one snow-stake we carried. I took it and went on alone, kicking out 40 steps at a time before taking a rest. I rolled off five sets of 40 steps that brmght me to the top of a sharp ridge. In front. of me was a horizoital apex, one side of this arete sweeping down to the south face of Zhangzi, the other to the East Rongbuk glamer. My first step cracted the arete across as I sunk to my knees in it. I then tried to take it on its right slope only to sink in again. Then I noticed avalanche debris further along this slope. I felt intimidated. I studied the ground between me and the summit 400 m or so away. I looked back down to the col. I could see dots that must be Dermot and Shay, and the figure of Phill now close to the tent, I knew that conditions would not change without a thaw, that a good day like this might not be repeated, that time was running out for us. ... I stepped onto the arete and contemplated crossing it crouched. I sank to my knees in it again and sat down defeated. I could see in my path a cornice 20 m away; my troubles would only be starting. I knew the risks were too great; screws, stakes, and ropes were useless in soft snow. I took out my camera, rolled off the five shots left, and tried to console myself with wisdoms. Then I turned and descended to the col.'

Frank had reached about 7200 m, and Phill about 50 m lower. Back at the col the four discussed the position; there was no prospect of improvement in conditions in the near future, and our time was short; they decided to go down. Dermot and Shay descended to the East Rongbuk glacier, repeated the circumnavigation of Zhangzi; Phill and Frank descended to C2. On the 15th, I descended with Frank and Phill, while Richard, Donal, and Mike went up to the North Col and back to C3. This was a notable performance, especially by Donal. After such a serious attack of oedema, most climbers would have headed straight for home.

Over the next couple of days we evacuated the higher camps and prepared for the yaks who would carry our gear down from ABC. The evening before they were due we had a party in the American camp (we had an amicable agreement by which we sang for our suppers - or more precisely for whisky); but as we stumbled back to our own tents, the snow started, and continued for 48 hours. The snow drifted up to the tops of the tents, and we had to dig ourselves out several times. When the snow stopped it was clear that the yaks would not be able to reach us, so we loaded up all we could carry on our backs and went down. It was an exhausting and dangerous journey, stumbling amongst rocks and holes, or hurrying down avalanche-prone slopes. What was normally a 21/2 hour journey took 7i hours. We were lucky; Doug Scott's party were not; we met them where we joined the East Rongbuk track digging for the body of Nima, a Sherpa (and friend -- he had been with Doug on many trips) who had been buried by an avalanche the previous day before his brother's eyes.

There were masses of snow at base, and the road was blocked by drifts. Our fixed dates for return were getting close, we could not wait for a very problematic re-opening of the road, or even for the more likely possibility of yaks in a few days, we had to walk out. Doug was leaving a rear party to wait for yaks, and he offered to look after our 3J loads - we had done a lot of pruning! Some of the party were going up to advance base to collect more personal gear, so we split into two groups. Ten of us, including the two Chinese (whom we had to kit out with boots etc. which were not apparently included in the fee we had paid to the CMA to equip the pair!) went down to Rongbuk monastery on 23 October. On the 24th we made a very long trudge in deep snow as far as Chodzong. With full packs it seemed interminable, six of us got in long after dark - for me it was a 10 hour walk. We stayed two and two in Tibetan houses, where we were welcomed very hospitably; it was a rare opportunity to meet Tibetans. We could also hire yaks, which eased our aching shoulders, even if we still had to walk and slide in mixed snow, slush and mud as far as Pasum, where 15 of us met and got a lift in the tractor and trailer (by this time we had been joined by Sandy Allen of the NE ridge party, and four 'Colorado' Americans), We slept at Tashidzom heartened by the sight of a lorry, which next morning: for a large sum took us up the Pang la until stopped by snowdrifts. Groaning we carried our loads up to the pass, and started down the other side. . . . Far below we could see a line of vehicles stopped. It was CMA transport for four expeditions which had driven as far as it could! It was not long before we reached the vehicles, which took us to Xegar, where the others after a tougher journey (including a night out) joined us next day. There were still plenty of problems before we got home, and scare headlines to worry our families, but the walking and carrying were mostly over.

The Australians reached the summit of Zhangzi by the north face and north ridge before the first snowfall. Although the south ridge is officially uiclimbed we believe an American Everest party climbed it as a side-show a couple of years ago. The NE ridge was climbed again in 1986 by a large Chinese party. The weather was curious rather than bad. For the first week we had cloud and some precipitation most days; for the rest of our stay except for the two heavy sncwfalls we had blue skies with some afternoon cumulus. But then was always a strong, or very strong west wind,, bitterly cold, which inhibited technical climbing, and kept down temperatures so tfcat there was never any consolidation of snow, and very little met. Avalanches were a constant danger, and in fact caused the faiure of the final summit attempt.

We have mixed feelings about climbing in China. Although almost all the Chiiese whom we actually dealt with were friendly and helpful, the sjstem was most inefficient (see our experiences over jeeps, yaks, aid boots for the two Chinese), and efficiency is the least one can expect for the high prices. It was typical of the system that neither Zhao Li nor Jackson had ever been in Tibet before, neither of them were climbers, and the interpreter knew no Tibetan. In the other Himalayan countries there are the same (or worse) problems with porters, transport and everything you can conceive, but you are your own master, and can generally work out your own salvation, whereas in China you have to wait while your LO does his best to sort out the problem through official channels.

Members: Joss Lynam (leader), Frank Nugent (deputy leader), Mike Barry, Richard Fry, Shay Nolan, Donal O'Murchu, Dermot Somers, Phill Thomas, Danny Osborne (artist), Geraldine Osborne (doctor), Leslie Lawrence (Base camp manager) and Sarah Gillamy Zhao Ii (liaison officer) and Jiang Cheng Qi ('Jackson') (interpreter)

Editor's Note: Zhangzi is the Chinese official name for the peak always known as Changtse from the Nepalese side in the south.-Ed.

Zhangzi from Lho La.  (Joss Lynam

Zhangzi from Lho La. (Joss Lynam

Zhangzi Expedition

Zhangzi Expedition