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)



XIXABANGMA IS THE 13th highest mountain in the world and the tallest to lie wholly within the borders of China. By the latest Chinese survey to be published (reference F), its height is 8027 m or 26,329 ft. The Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA) agreed in August 1984 that a team of British mountaineers under the leadership of Lt Col M. W. H. Day should be allowed to attempt to climb the virgin east face of Xixabangma in 1987. The expedition was promoted by the Scientific Exploration Society under its Chairman Col J. N. Blashford-Snell and was authorised by the CMA to conduct scientific research along the route of the climb, the scope of which was agreed with the Chinese Academy of Sciences. Dr H. A. Osmaston planned and coordinated the scientific programme.

There were 19 British climbers in the team of which eight were soldiers. The science and support party numbered ten altogether. The team deliberately included a number of aspirants, younger climbers with a good alpine record and with the potential to do well in the greater ranges. The 10 youngest members of the team were aged between 18 and 23. Attached to the expedition by the CMA were Ho, as the liaison officer, Wei, as interpreter and the driver of the truck that was to remain on call at Nyalam. Two Chinese scientists joined the party in Nepal.

The team assembled in Kathmandu during the first 10 days of September and began the difficult task of clearing the expedition freight through customs. The expedition agent Mike Cheney and his company made arrangements to transport the freight to the Nepal/China border and also arranged acclimatization treks in the Jugal Himal for the team members.

Nepal customs released the expedition freight in bond onee the 300 ration boxes aad been sewn and sealed into hessian sacks. Another option would have been to seal the freight into secure trucks and only open them in the presence of customs officials at the border. However, the Friendship Highway had been blocked by a number of laidslides as a result of heavy monsoon rains and vehicles from Katiamandu could only reach Barabise, a distance of 89 of the 122 kns to the border. Expeditions going in to Tibet before the monsion had used this method satisfactorily. By September the roai was also blocked beyond Lamosangu and a new Ģet of porters had o be hired at each obstruction as well as vehicles being used where they were available, having been trapped between landslides. A final porter lift across the border took place on 18 September as far as vehicles provided by the CMA which were waiting where the road was next clear, above Zhangmu (Khasa).

To assist in acclimatization it was arranged that the team would trek in to Tibet through the Jugal Himal, from Balephi to the frontier at Kodari. The team was split into 3 parties for this while other members undertook the frustrating task of escorting the freight along the valley below. Day's party left Kathmandu on 9 September and within a day suffered their first leeches and monsoon rain while climbing up through forests to the ridgeline of the Darlinje Danda. In 5 days they reached the holy lake of Bhairab Kund at an altitude of 4000 m. They also had time to go higher and carried a camp within range of a 5000 m peak which was reached by Davison on 15 September. Venables' party had arrived at Bhairab Kund by then as had the scientists under Osmaston. All were enjoying the full bandobast laid on by Mike Cheney in spite of the leeches and rain; but the general verdict was that trekking in the monsoon would not catch on!

As arranged with the CMA the climbing team crossed the frontier at Friendship Bridge on 18 September and in due course met up with Ho and Wei and the transport. There was a delay with the Chinese customs officials of several hours until the exchange rate for Sterling to Renminbi was obtained from the bank; an inauspicious start to their relationship with officials in Tibet. At dusk all the loads had been assembled next to 2 CMA trucks and it was clear something would have to stay behind until one of the trucks could deliver its load to Nyalam and return to Zhangmu. Francis volunteered to remain overnight with the surplus stores, undeterred by the aroma of the rotting carcase of a dead dog that lay in a ditch a few metres from the stack of stores. As darkness closed in, so did a menacing crowd of Tibetans who clearly intended to help themselves to the gear. The anxious group hastily induced the driver of a waiting truck to take them and the kit and with relief escaped to Nyalam.

A camp was set up in Nyalam by the bridge over the Phy Chu on the site where the reconnaissance party had pitched their tents in 1984. The route to base camp was straightforward at that time of year and team members had no difficulty in proceeding, except those who were afflicted by a virus that had been picked up in Kathmandu. The limitation on progress was once again transport - this time yaks. Ho did well to get 9 yaks and they reported as bidden on 20 September albeit late and with more than the 3 drivers stipulated. The first difficulty occurred 4J hours later when 'Ski Goggles', who aspired to be the shop steward of the yakkers, wanted to stop at the foot of Bang Zeng Na Buzhe pass when the camp lay just over the top of it. After this misunderstanding was resolved the carry was completed as planned and the crucial matter of stages established. If it had become the practice to make the journey to base in 3 days rather than 2 the expedition would have been seriously delayed. As it was loads were still arriving at base on 1 October and the balance of the climbers* loads was delivered when the scientific party arrived 2 weeks later, by which time the lead climbers were tackling the headwall nearly 2000 m above. This slow build-up kept back almost half the team and delayed stocking of camps up the mountain. The scientific party followed a separate programme during this period under Dr Osmaston.

The reconnaissance in 1984 had identified 2 sections of the route that would most likely cause difficulty. The first problem was to gain access to the Phola glacier above a moraine-dammed lake. The other was the threat posed by a huge barrier of ice-cliffs that hung half way up the east face. In the event, the moraine covered glacier was penetrated at the first attempt on 23 September by a party headed by Venables. They sited a temporary camp on the far side of the worst of the moraine at a point that gave clear access to the main glacier as well as the tributary beyond Pungpa R’s east ridge. However their closer view of Xixabangma's east face revealed that the ice-barrier was even more threatening than it had been in 1984 and they were unanimous in recommending an alternative approach. After inspecting the east face and the options, Day concurred and two possibilities were shortlisted; via the east ridge of Pungpa Ri (and thence up the south ridgs of Xixabangma to the top) or an even wider left hook. Venables’ party started pushing a route up through the ice-cliffs of the tributary glacier the same day and they were so successful that the route was secured with rope where required - and a wire ladder on a 30 m wall that was almost vertical - by 3 October. The next day the weatier broke after a 10 day period of cloudless skies and all 10 membeis in residence left advance base. However 6 of them thought betler of it and turned back so were well placed when the storm passed to stock CI (5700 m) and move up to C2 (6200 m) at the foot of the headwall. Every length of rope the expedition had left was fixed on the 500 m high wall. The route led up hard ice aid picked its way from boulder to boulder to which ropes were secured with pitons. C3 was an ice-cave dug into the ridge at 6800 m. From there to the summit of Xixabangma was 3 1/2 kilometres measured off the map. C3 was reached by Venables and Uore eventually on 15 October as progress had been held up by lick of rock pitons and rope. Also the effects cf altitude and sickness was taking its toll amongst the climbers. Day had retired to bsse with pneumonia. Venables, Hughes, Vlasto, Phillips and Chung also descended for a rest while Williams, Francis, Garratt and Wells moved up to C2 for a first bid for the summit. They had oxygen equipment.

The big snowfall began at base camp half an hour before midnight on the night of 17/18 October but it had been snowing gently all day at the higher camps. Only half a metre fell that night but that was enough to collapse the mess shelter - a large tank tarpaulin - as well as the bell tents. Next day dawned clear with a strong, cold wind. Tents were dug out and broken poles, repaired. The excellent radios, which never let the expedition down, enabled climbers trapped in all the camps to keep in touch with one another. At C2 there was concern that the build-up of fresh snow on the headwall might avalanche so the team moved themselves and their tents to the lower side of a convenient crevasse and topped the pile of stores with a 2 m tall bamboo wand. Snow fell again the next night and did not cease for two nights and a day. Early on the morning of 19 October there was another retreat from advance base. House and Kimber stayed in place and experienced the ordeal of their tent becoming a snow-cave as it was buried in 3 m of snow, half of it above the ridgepole of the tent. They kept track of all the tents and stores so were able to direct the digging that was necessary to recover enough to continue the climb after the storm. Even at base camp tents were buried and poles broken (again) in spite of continuous digging. The scientists kept their bell tent propped up with yak boxes and the same was done with the mess shelter. There was a queue for every shovel. At C2 the four climbers kept their tents clear as best they could with their hands but realised at dusk on 19 October they had lost sight of the wand on top of the cache of equipment. The next day was sunny but windy and Hughes used snow-shoes to break a trail back towards ABC to assist Griffin's party who were making slow progress; less than 2 km in 24 hours. Soon after Davison struggled in from the scientists' camp at the Kung Tso and reported they needed help so another team went out to help them in. It was the eve of Osmaston's 65th birthday and he spent it nursing frost-nipped toes. Meanwhile William's party withdrew down the mountain in good order to CI - where nothing remained. A great deal of equipment had been lost but otherwise they were fit to go on. Elsewhere in the Himalaya from Everest to Ladakh climbers were abandoning their camps and struggling out of the mountains.

Using snow-shoes the team found the route could be re-opened and Day made a trail to advance base to relieve Kimber and House who had already dug out much kit and thereby saved the day for a summit attempt. Williams and party met up with them having had an arduous descent of the icefall because of the deep fresh snow. Venables and Hughes supported by Vlasto and Phillips remade a trail to C2 carrying up replacement personal equipment and tentage. A critical shortage of gas and food for the summit bid was solved by Upton and Day carrying some up to CI on 24 October from where Vlasto and Phillips took it on to C2 the same evening. Meanwhile Venables and Hughes were on their way. On their first day from the snow-cave they carried a tent to 7370 m then went on to the summit of Pungpa Ri (7486 m 24,550 ft) which they reached at 2 o'clock. This was the second ascent and in the upper section joined the route taken by Doug Scott's party which first climbed it from the west in 1983. Next day they bypassed the summit on the west flank and rejoined the south ridge of Xixabangma. At one o'clock they became visible through binoculars from a position at the edge of the glacier below advance base where a party of four had assembled to watch. The ridge appeared foreshortened from there and progress appeared to be rapid and they did not seem to have much farther to go to the top when they disappeared from view at 1545 hrs. Later it was learnt that they had dug another snow-cave at 7650 m and spent the night in it. They had taken only a little food when they set off on 27 October but had some gas left for melting snow. They saw a big build-up of cloud that night and they emerged in the morning to find a strong wind was blowing. Hughes was already showing signs of frostbite and this, together with the windchill, drove them to make the reluctant decision to turn back. Very disappointed, they descended to their tent at 'C4' where there was food. Meanwhile Vlasto had been joined at C3 in the snow-cave by Williams, replacing Phillips who had fallen sick from the effects of altitude. On 28 October they too reached the summit of Pungpa Ri and made a radio transmission from the top at 1230 hours.

During this exciting period a message was received from the LO that a storm was forecast for 29/30 October, the warning having originated at the meteorological office in Nyalam. The scientists and the CMA officials had descended there by then, but with difficulty as the snow had not consolidated as it had further up the mountain. There was also a problem at base camp as fuel for cooking was getting crucially short, so House, Freeman-Attwood and Chung escorted the scientists down as far as intermediate camp to recover a jerry can of petrol. They took with them a radio so for this period there were communications from base to within a day's walk of Nyalam. Meanwhile the rest of the climbers descended to base camp to await the forecasted storm which manifested itself as a cold front with high winds, clear skies, and a noticeable drop in temperature - which fell to -18°C overnight at base camp. Reviewing the position, there seemed no reason to prevent a further attempt on the summit of Xixabangma. Venables was fighting fit and half a dozen of the team who could delay their return to UK declared themselves keen to support him. All camps were in place and partly stocked and the route prepared with fixed ropes where they were needed. Just as the plan was starting to be put into action a message was received via the LO that in the aftermath of the great storm - and, unstated, the Lhasa riots - the expedition was being terminated and they were to leave the mountain forthwith. This was a real blow but an appeal to Beijing would take too long so advance base was abruptly packed up and equipment cached on top of a huge rock. Day, Venables and Wells carried as much as they could manage down to base from where a column of men could be seen streaming down the valley, clearly unencumbered by yak boxes. This was the rescue party sent up from Nyalam by local government officials and the CMA. Disappointingly, on arrival at base the porters had declined to carry any loads - just what they did expect to do was never made clear. Williams induced them to reconsider with presents of expedition property and they were persuaded to carry half loads of about 10 kgs each. Even so lightly laden they took 3 days to reach Nyalam. About 30 loads remained at base and arrangements are being made for its recovery by members who will be returning to Tibet next spring with the British Services Everest Expedition. J. Blashford-Snell and the scientists had already left Nyalam for Kathmandu and had sent word back that the road was impassable to vehicles 8 km beyond Nyalam. So porters had to be found to carry the loads the extra 25 km to the border of Zhangmu.

The CMA require an expedition representative to visit the appropriate regional capital at the end of their climb to discuss expenditure and then to settle accounts in Beijing. Experience has shown that several members are an advantage at the negotiations to match the CMA treasurer's team. Originally just Day, Hughes and Venables were to undertake the job but subsequently the expedition's generous patron Eric Hotung invited them to increase the Size of the team to eight and to join him in Beijing to celebrate a successful expedition. The beauty of the first stage of the journey was stunning. The Tibetan plateau was not its usual drab brown colour as since the storm it had been covered in snow. As the sun set they drove past five of the greatest mountains on earth; Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and Cho Oyu as well as Xixabangma. Five of the world's eight thousanders! It was a thrilling sight. As they had crossed the Lalung la, at the same height as base camp, they had looked back on Xixabangma and seen the great south ridge no longer foreshortened. Just how far it was from Pungpa Ri to the top was much clearer and it was remarkable that Stephen and Luke had got as far as they did, and had spent so long without support at that altitude. That night the vehicles pulled into the Chinese cantonment in Xegar, a modern caravanserai where the paths of climbers from all over the world cross on their ways to the great peaks. A brief word was had with the Japanese soldiers who had been attempting the west ridge of Everest, of great interest to the 5 climbers on Xixabangma who will be next on the route in the spring. A highlight of the journey was the bath in hot spring water near Lhatze next day. It was 5 November; the previous hot bath had been at Tatopani in Nepal on 17 September. After a stopover in Xigatse, sadly having arrived too late to get into Tashilhunpo monastery, they reached Lhasa in time to stroll beneath the Potala by the light of a full moon. The atmosphere around the city was not relaxed. There were far more Chinese around than there had been 3 years before when the reconnaissance party passed through - and they seemed to outnumber Tibetans on the streets. There were almost no foreigners. All individual travellers had been ordered out after the disturbances of 1 October and only previously booked groups were being admitted. The party were able to visit the Potala but not the Jokhang, and business was concluded with officials of the Tibetan Mountaineering Association. They flew on to Beijing via Changdu the following day.

The team was joined on the plane at Chengdu by a joint Japanese/Chinese team that had made the first ascent of Choksiam (7316 m), a peak the Xixabangma team had admired to their east. They were taken to the CMA's hotel, the Bei-wei, where Day had first negotiated to climb in China in 1980. There was a day before their flight left for Hong Kong which gave time for sightseeing - and the much discussed settling of the bill. So at 0830 hrs on their final morning the 2 teams met. The CMA were led by Wang who had been simply the 'treasurer* in 1980 and was now promoted Vice-President. His eyes lit up when he recognised an old adversary. It was a match played by CMA rules, the last of which states: ‘The right to interprete and alter these provisions belongs to the CMA.’ Nevertheless in 2 hours the extra charges over the budgeted figure paid in advance to the CMA had been agreed and a cheque signed. They shook hands, caught the bus to the airport and flew back to England.

Although the summit had not quite been attained, a new route had been made up Xixabangma from the east which joined with known ground on the south ridge. Four members had the satisfaction of standing on the summit of Pungpa Ri (7486 m), the second and third ascents of that mountain.

Climbers: Lt Col Henry Day (leader), Chung Kin Man, Brian Davison, Robert Durran, Capt Duncan Francis, Capt Jonny Garratt, Lindsay Griffin, LCpl John House, Luke Hughes, LCpl Jim Kimber, Jerry Gore, Kate Phillips, Julian Freeman-Attwood, Dr Mark Upton, Stephen Venables, Lt John Vlasto, Alastair Wells, Capt Nigel Williams.


A. 'Report on a Mountaineering Exploration in Tibet (Jade Venture 2)' 16 Oct. 84.

B. ‘Regulation* for Foreign Mountaineering & Tourist Groups conducting Expeditions in China.’ CMA, Beijing, Nov. 84.

C. ‘Provisions on the Collection of Charge from Foreign Mountaineering or Trekking Groups in China,' CMA, Beijing, Jan. 84.

D. Tibet - A TravelSurvival Kit. Lonely Planet Publications 1986.

E. Map 1: 3 million ‘The Mountains of Central Asia'. Royal Geographical Society & Mount Everest Foundation, Macmillan Ltd., 1987.

F. Map 1: 1million ‘South Central Tibet. Kathmandu-Lhasa route map'. Edward Stanford Ltd., 1987.
G. Map 1: 50,000 ‘Regional Map of Mount Xixabangma’. CMA 1987.

Editor’s Note: Xixabangma is the Chinese spelling for Shishapangma and needs to be used in all correspondence with the authorities in China- Ed.

Frontispiece: Zhangzi (7580 m)- Looking up south ridge. 		(F. Nugent)

Frontispiece: Zhangzi (7580 m)- Looking up south ridge. (F. Nugent)

 Nyanang Ri from c. 6800 m on the Pungpa Ri headwall. Expedition route through the icefall (bottom left). Phola lake below. Article 4					(S. Venables)

Nyanang Ri from c. 6800 m on the Pungpa Ri headwall. Expedition route through the icefall (bottom left). Phola lake below. Article 4 (S. Venables)

Shishapangma cirque from BC. L to R: Nyanang Ri, Phola Gancten, Pungpa Ri, Shishapangma.

Shishapangma cirque from BC. L to R: Nyanang Ri, Phola Gancten, Pungpa Ri, Shishapangma.

Langtang Lining from Shishapangma. Article 4										(S. Venables)

Langtang Lining from Shishapangma. Article 4 (S. Venables)

Menlungtse from Shishapangma.

Menlungtse from Shishapangma.

Eastern side of Shishapangma (Xixabangma). Route of 1987 British expendition. L to R: Nyanang Ri (7071 m), Pungpa Ri (7486 m), Shishapangma summit (8027 m), Phola glacier in foreground. Article 4										(S. Venables)

Eastern side of Shishapangma (Xixabangma). Route of 1987 British expendition. L to R: Nyanang Ri (7071 m), Pungpa Ri (7486 m), Shishapangma summit (8027 m), Phola glacier in foreground. Article 4 (S. Venables)