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 IMPISH ADVENTURER Eric Shipton first revealed Men. lungtse's delight in 1951, while making the reconnaissance of Everest. Shipton made an illicit foray across the Himalayan watershed from Nepal into Tibet, then closed to Western mountaineers. He came across an isolated peak rising almost sheer from a glacier. 'It's colossal granite walls pale and smooth as polished marble - every evening they glowed as coral.'

The British climber Peter Boardman obtained an even better vantage point from the neighbouring summit of Gaurishankar in 1979. He saw 'a mighty white obelisk of snow and pale pink granite, whose shape matched that of the Matterhorn'. Of all the peaks around, Menlungtse 'was the nearest and loveliest vision of all.'

In the quest for virgin peaks, no mountaineer could want a better recommendation. In 1984 we, who had glimpsed Menlungtse (7181 m) during successive attempts on Everest in the 1970s, sent a somewhat speculative letter to the Chinese Government, seeking permission to mount an expedition.

The first reply was hardly encouraging. The Chinese said they had never heard of Menlungtse. In fact, we had offended the Chinese preference for local names rather than those bestowed by Westerns. Shipton had christened the peak Menlungtse, after the nearby Menlung pass, whereas the Chinese knew it as Qiao Ge Ru. We thereupon made a second application to climb Qiao Ge Ru and, with the diplomatic niceties restored, the Chinese agreed.

Just getting to base camp had been an adventure. We had originally planned on taking five days to reach there from the roadhead, but it had taken us over a fortnight. We had seriously underestimated the problems of penetrating a region of Tibet where no foreigner had ever been before.

It started well enough. We had arranged with the Chinese Mountaineering Association to meet our liaison officer Wang Ja Ren and our interpreter Li Zhen. He at the Friendship Bridge, the border crossing at Kodari between Nepal and China.

We had arrived the previous night in a bus and a sealed lorry containing all the equipment and food we had imported through Kathmandu airport. Jim Fotheringham, a dentist from Brampton, in Cumbria, and my fellow Briton on this six-man Norwegian-British expedition, had spent a frustrating day arguing with the Nepalese customs, for we were breaking new ground as the first mountaineering expedition to go through Nepal into Tibet with all its gear.

Photo 7
Jim is a good and patient negotiator and finally got us through without paying any duty. This meant, however, that we reached the frontier after dark when it was closed. We slept under the stars, to be woken the next morning by the jabber of Nepali porters.

The road beyond the border had been swept away by landslides and we had to walk to the Chinese frontier village of Zhangmu (also known as Khasa), 300 m above.

There was no sign of our liaison officer. We set about checking the loads and clearing Chinese customs with a group of officials none of whom spoke English. It was a great relief when our interpreter Li turned up. A round-faced young man of 22 wearing glasses, a smart jacket and jeans, he quickly talked us through customs and booked us into the hotel next door.

We were warned that just getting out of Zhangmu was doubtful, because of landslips. That very afternoon a torrent of rocks and mud had poured down a huge scarred landslip at one end of the village, piled on top of itself on a precarious hillside.

We set out the following morning on a lorry crammed with all our stores. A rock the size of a car bounced down the steep slope above just as we crossed the danger area. The road zigzagged back through the village, ruined buildings at its edge clearly marking the threat to the entire community.

Then we were beyond the danger area, crawling in low gear into the precipitous gorge that even the traders call the Gate of Hell. The road wound through rocky walls and pine-forested slopes, at times tunneling through snow drifts 3 m deep. The gorge carves through the main Himalayan chain to the high arid hills of Tibet, across the 5340 m Lalung Leh pass. From there we gained a superb view of Shishapangma to the west, Everest far to the east, and, among the jumble of peaks between, our objective - Menlungtse.

We dropped to the Tibetan plateau in a,cloud of dust. It's bleak and bitterly cold, even under a bright sun, giving an impression of endless space, of brown rolling hills, frozen streams and brown wind-blasted grass.

Our journey ended at the small village of Tingri, set at 4480 m. The height gain had been altogether too fast, and Odd Eliassen, Helge Ringdal and Torgeir Fosse all experienced altitude sickness. At Tingri we met our liaison officer, Wang. Solidly built, with a weather-beaten face - an ex-footballer now working for the Chinese Mountaineering Association.

He told us that the pass that led back south through the Himalayan chain to Menlungtse was still blocked by snow, but that he had ordered yaks to carry our gear over it. We had to drive to the roadhead the following day to meet up with the yak drivers. But Bjorn Myhrer-Lund, a nurse in Oslo's main hospital and one of Norway's outstanding mountaineers, was not prepared to let any of the other Norwegians move until they felt better. We therefore decided that Jim and myself should travel to the road-head with Wang and hold the yaks for three days.

The road was little more than a line of stones in the desert. It was frequently blocked by snow-drifts and the driver either powered through them or took precarious diversions, the rugged lorry tilting over at a crazy angle. We were stuck in the snow several times and had to dig ourselves out, until finally we were stopped by a frozen stream with a huge drift on the other side. We were just short of the village of Japula, but could go no further. The yaks arrived that afternoon, the yak drivers erecting their smoke-grimed tents nearby.

Jim and I had three pleasant days, walking over the hills immediately around the camp, which was situated at 4570 m, in the process becoming acclimatized to the altitude. The truck returned with the four Norwegians and food for the yaks and their drivers- All but Torgier had fully recovered, but he was still desperately weak and could barely walk.

We knew that once we had crossed the pass we would drop to below 3050 m, an altitude at which he could recover, so we decided to have him carried on the back of a yak. We set out the following day up the wide empty valley that led towards the great barrier of the Himalaya, towards a mountain the Tibetans called Cho Rapsam.

On its left was Cho Oyu, one of the 14 peaks over the magic height of 8000 m. Between the two peaks was the Nangpa la, the classic route into Solu Khumbu in Nepal, home of the Sherpas. We camped at the foot of the Nangpa la.

Torgeir seemed no worse, but neither was he any better, and now we had in front of us a 4570 m pass. Bjorn gave him another thorough examination and diagnosed pneumonia, putting him on a course of antibiotics. We resolved to get him over the pass, knowing how much it meant to him.

Swinging right from the Nangpa la, immediately below the ice-falls of Cho Rapsam, we climbed a steep ridge, the Tibetans softly whistling and clucking to their yaks, never showing any impatience, never using any kind of force. We reached the crest of the pass in the late afternoon.

We stopped just the other side of the pass, at 5780 m. Jim Fotheringham had pressed on ahead and had a night by himself, though he met up with some yak herders carrying timber back north across the pass, and shared their meal of tsampa and tea.

Our yak drivers believed in a leisured routine, not moving out of their woollen, hand-woven tents, which they heat with a yak dung stove, until the sun reached them. They then had a leisured breakfast before collecting the yaks, feeding them with tsampa -cakes to supplement the winter grazing. It was usually two o'clock in the afternoon before the yaks were loaded and moving. One day it started snowing at midday and they only kept going for a couple of hours before stopping for the night. We couldn't understand why they had stopped so early, particularly as it seemed the grazing lower down was much better. Wang, on the other hand, was having the greatest difficulty keeping them going at all.

They wanted to return to Tingri, since they were getting into unknown ground, but Wang persuaded them to take us down to Chang Bu Jian, the district headquarters, where we would be able to get fresh yaks. We walked for two days down a narrow gorge flanked by huge granite walls, steadily losing height, through the brush line, then the tree line, the air getting warmer the lower we got.

Torgeir was showing signs of rocovery and was now able to walk. We were now on the southern side of the Himalayan chain where the monsoon rains would penetrate a narrow valley, bringing the lush green vegetation more familiar in Nepal.

The district headquarters comprised a single-storeyed compound. The leader, as far as I could gather, was Chinese, as seemed quite a few of the occupants. The village, a few minutes below, was pure Tibetan. We were the first foreigners ever to visit it.

A day was spent bargaining with the villagers. They told us the way was too difficult for yaks, and at first demanded an extortionate sum, but eventually settled on a more reasonable fee.

We set out on 22 March, walking down an incredibly beautiful gorge with frozen cataracts suspended down the northern side and dense shrubbery. An hour's walk took us to the confluence with the Menlung valley, where we found the ruins of what must have been an exquisitely beautiful gompa, or monastery. The walls were still standing and it was partly roofed. Inside the inner sanctuary, the floor was littered with sheets of torn parchment, and small gilt-covered Buddhas, flanking what had obviously been a large Buddha, were disfigured.

The plaster covering had been torn away as if they had been disembowelled. I was immensely saddened at the sight. The setting of the monastery was so idyllic, placed on a promontory between the two rivers, with blossoming trees round a little sunken garden, where, no doubt, the monks had meditated.

We now started climbing steeply up the side of the forested Menlung valley, to stop for the night by some overhung rocks where our porters could gain shelter. They were immensely friendly, offering us cups of tea laced with salt and butter, as well as the staple food of tsampa, a finely-milled barley flour, which can be mixed into tea, made into dumplings, or even eaten plain. Their other staple is the potato, which we were also offered.

We now had our first glimpse of Menlungtse, a soaring pyramid of ice at the head of the valley. Climbing through dense rhododendron forests, which should be ablaze with flower in a few weeks' time, we reached a perfect site for our base camp at 4080 m on a grassy shelf flanked by slopes clad in juniper and with a couple of useful caves underneath.

But our problems were not over, for Wang had run out of money. The porters were beginning to get angry, even threatening to carry all our gear back down to the village. Wang finally solved the problem by rushing back himself to the district headquarters to borrow some money, finally arriving back to pay off our yaks and porters.

We had reached base camp below the north face of Menlungtse on 25 March. 10 days behind schedule, because of the difficulty of the approach, but at least we were fairly well acclimatized to the altitude since we had already spent so much time between 4000 and 5000 m. We set out on our first recce on 27 March, to look at the north side of the mountain, walking up a long moraine slope towering above the glacier to the north-of Menlungtse but there was no hope on that side.

The following day we set out to explore the southern aspect. We knew from photographs taken from Nepal that the southern aspect looked more promising.

The four ridges dropping down from the high ramparts of the southern aspect all appeared steep and difficult but the route that gave the greatest chance of success was more a buttress than a ridge.

Three days later, on 2 April, we were at 5240 m at the foot of the buttress. We had decided to use some fixed rope, both io make it safer for the descent and to give us a higher jumping-ofl point, before committing ourselves to an Alpine-style push for the summit.

The approach to the foot of the buttress was frightening. Bjorn Myrer-Lund, our best rock climber, surged into the front, leading across steep granite slabs, trailing the fixing rope behind him. I brought up the rear, anchoring the rope to the pitons so that we could use it as a hand rail as we passed back and forth.

This led to a stretch that was little more than walk but we left a rope in place since it seemed particularly threatened by the hanging glacier above. We moved on up to a snow bay at the side of the ridge and that afternoon were able to run out three rope lengths before dropping back down to our advance base in the valley.

The following day we returned to the foot of the ridge with our tents and food but we still had some fixed rope to run out. On 5 April, carrying just the climbing gear and rope, we started to put the rest of the rope in place. This took us to the rocky crest of the buttress and immediately progress slowed. What had looked like solid rock from a distance, turned out to be a terrifying pile of shattered blocks, Jim led one pitch. It was slow and frightening work, for nothing was secure. There was the constant threat of dislodging one of the huge rocks, all of which weighed several tons. The next rope length was even worse.

Bjorn announced: ‘If the rock doesn't get any better we can't go on. It's too dangerous’ Jim agreed. But I wanted to push on and felt that we had already put so much into this climb it was worth going further in the hope that conditions would improve. It was about time I led a pitch anyway, so I started up the broken ridge. The difficulties had eased and the rock was marginally more sound. We climbed on for another four or five rope lengths until we had used up both our fixed rope and our four climbing ropes, before dropping back to our camp at the foot of the ridge.

Now it was time for the summit attempt. Next morning, heavily laden with food for six days, cooking stoves, gas cylinders, tents, sleeping bags and spare clothes, we set out for the top of our fixed ropes. By late afternoon we had reached the previous day's high point and had picked up the climbing ropes we needed for the rest of the ascent, thus cutting the 'umbilical cord' that linked us with the safety of the ground.

Clouds had piled up during the afternoon but didn't look too dangerous. The weather still appeared settled. Jim and I built a platform for our tent, carving the top off a small crest of snow and building jt out with flat rocks piled one on top of the other. Odd Eliassen and Bjorn were camped several metres above us. They had run out a further rope length and shouted down that the way ahead looked clear. That night we were both full of optimism confident that we would reach the foot of the band barring our way to the easy summit plateau the following day. But our optimism was misplaced.

At last we were ready. It was my turn to lead, and the difficulties had eased. X pulled round an overhang on the ridge, picked my way up the huge granite blocks until Bjorn warned me that I had nearly run out of rope. A short steep pitch and we were on snow.

We were making faster progress now but the clouds, almost unnoticed in our concentration, had come swirling in, It was three in the afternoon and already it was beginning to snow. Bjorn was now another two rope lengths ahead, having by-passed another rock tower and approaching the next, I was beginning to dig out a ledge.

As I did so the wind slowly built up. This wasn't just afternoon cloud and snow. It was something much more ominous. Jim and I were digging into the crest of a steep narrow snow ridge, and then suddenly I was aware of a high pitched buzz all around us. Jim collapsed onto his knee clutching his head.

'I've been hit,' he muttered. It was lightning. We couldn't have been more exposed and yet there was nothing we could do about it. We judged the ledge big enough and erected our tiny tent. By this time it was snowing hard. And now the wind began to rise, screaming and hammering out of the west, tearing and clutching at the tent.

The following morning the wind was as fierce as ever. Bjorn and Odd's tent had been torn to shreds and they had dropped their stove. Our tent had survived, but we were battered by the experience and resigned to retreat while we still could.

Retreat was no easy matter. We were now about nine rope lengths above the top of the fixed ropes we had left in place. This meant abseiling down the double ropes, but first someone had to go out and retrieve our climbing ropes that Bjorn had fixed the previous night. I volunteered. Jim came out to join me and together we recovered the two ropes. By the time we got back to the camp, Bjorn and Odd were packed. We also took down our tent and abandoned our haven.

I was the last to go down, had a few feet to go to reach the abseil rope and decided to make a short abseil from the snow-stake we had used to secure our camp. I clipped the double rope through the karabiner, leaned back, and suddenly I was tumbling backwards. 'God - I've had it!'

My reflexes took over. As I somersaulted past the main abseil point, I managed to grab the rope, felt it tear through my hands, somehow managed to hang on and my uncontrolled fall stopped. It was only then that I had time to assess what had happened. I'd pulled out the snow-anchor. I had a feeling more of shame at my mistake than one of shock or fear. Chastened, I clipped into the abseil ropes and started down to join the others. I didn't tell them anything until the following day.

It was late afternoon when we reached the foot of the ridge at our first camp. Without discussion, we stripped the site and carried everything back down to the valley, a further three thousand feet below.

We began to plan again. Surely there must be a better route up the mountain? We hadn't really examined the far southeast ridge which led straight to the summit. Maybe that could give us a chance. On April 13, Jim, Odd, Torgeir Fosse and Helge Ringdal set out to make recce, Bjorn and I wanted one more day's rest.

They walked below the southeast ridge, gazed up at it and realised that it would be even more difficult and time-consuming than the route we had just completed. But they did see something else. The Menlung valley was rich in wild life. We had already seen herds of small deer, the fresh tracks of a snow leopard, and coveys of Ramchakor, a grouse-like bird.

We decided to return to our original route, fixing the remainder of our rope so that we could have a higher jumping-off point. We returned to the fray on 16 April, spent two days reclimbing the difficult section and leaving a line of fixed rope behind us. However, at the end of the second day we were hit by another thunder storm and retreated first to advance base and then all the way back to base.

The following morning the weather seemed to improve. We rushed straight back, frightened that we might have lost a window in the weather pattern - went from base at 3960 m to CI at 5240 m in a single day and on the following one, 22 April climbed the ropes we had fixed to the previous high point at 6000 m.

We got there just before dusk. We now had plenty of food end fuel, dug our tents well in and felt well set up for a push towards the summit. But that evening it began to snow and blow, and kept it up throughout the night. In late afternoon, Odd and Bjorn, who had camped two rope lengths above us, arrived back down. 'We've decided to go down. Look, the weather's breaking Up again.'

Jim and I decided to sit it out one more night, hoping for an improvement. It started snowing again 10 minutes after they had left and by dark the wind had built up into a crescendo of terrifying force.

The following morning, shaken and exhausted, we fled. We got out just in time, for the weather deteriorated still further. We were glad to be alive. We had come through, a close knit and very happy team, had seen a beautiful, wild and unspoilt region and had given our best to one of the steepest and most attractive, unclimbed peaks in the world.

North side of Menlungtse.  									(Chris Baonington)

North side of Menlungtse. (Chris Baonington)