Menlungtse from Pt. 5753 m. Routes of ascent and attempt. Article 5 (C. Bonington)
‘CHO OYU, Gyachung Kang, Menlungtse, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu ere all higher than us, but Menlungtse was the nearest and loveliest vision of all. A mighty white obelisk of snow and pale pink granite, whose shape matched that of the Matterhorn from the east.'
Peter Boardman describing the view from the summit of Gauri Shankar.
I first saw Menlungtse in 1961 on my way back from climbing Nuptse. We had crossed the Teshi Lapcha pass and saw it quite close, steep, twin summited, encased in grey granite and ice, desirable, yet unattainable for it was entirely in Tibet. I gazed at it subsequently from the slopes of the Southwest face of Everest, from where it appears as a sharp pyramid almost lost in the greater mass of Gaurishankar behind it. It was in 1984 that I wrote to the Chinese Mountaineering Association to ask for permission to climb Menlungtse. It was a long shot, since it wasn't on their list of peaks that were open to foreign climbers and I was pleasantly surprised when they gave me their permission.
No one had made a serious attempt on Menlungtse though I had heard rumors of an illicit effort across the border which had reached a height of around 6000 m. We were also told by the local people that they had apprehended an expedition in the Menlung valley to the south of the mountain and had confiscated most of their gear before sending them on their way.
The Rongshar valley had been reached from over the Fushi la, in 1921 by Howard Bury and Heron as part of the Everest Reconnaissance expedition and then again, at, the end of the 1924 expedition by Bruce, Hingston, Shebbeare, Odell and Norton after the loss of Mallory and Irvine. It shows, incidentally, the more leisured approach of those pre-war days, when expeditions meant being away from home at least six months. There was none of the mad rush to get back by the first plane available. Each party descended the Rongshar gorge until it became precipitous, they crossed the Nepalese frontier but were stopped by a fallen bridge.
It was in 1951 that the Menlung valley was first reached by Europeans, when Eric Shipton and Mike Ward, on the way back from the Everest Reconnaissance expedition, crossed the Dingjung la (which is so named in the Schneider map, used for all place references in this article, though Shipton and Kogan referred to this as the Menlung la) and descended the Drogpa Nagtsang. They named the impressive peak on the north side of the valley Menlungtse, unaware that its local name was Jobo Garu. On the way down the valley, near its head they saw and photographed the tracks that have, eversince, become the classic Yeti track picture. They went on down the Menlung Chu to sneak past the Chua Gompa at night to descend the Rongshar Chu into Nepal.
In the autumn of 1954 a Swiss expedition led by Raymond Lambert set out to climb Gaurishankar from Nepal. They decided it was too difficult and turned their attention to Menlungtse, crossing the Menlung la. They explored the upper Menlung valley, thought that Menlungtse also was too difficult, so crossed the Dingjung la and tried Cho Oyu without success. They certainly had quite a journey.
In 1987 I invited to join me, Odd Eliassen and Bjorn Myrer-Lund, the two Norwegians who had accompanied me to the summit of Everest in 1985, and Jim Fotheringham, one of my regular climbing partners in the Lake District,- with whom I had climbed Shivling In 1983. The team was completed by Helge Ringdal and Torger Fosse who were supporting us.1
We crossed the Nepalese/Chinese frontier at the Friendship Bridge on 8 March and travelled by truck through Tingri to a frozen river about fifteen miles north of the deserted village of Kyetrak, which is at the base of the Kyetrak glacier leading up to the Nangpa la. A road, built by the Chinese, crosses the Fushi la and drops down into the Rongshar Chu to the village of Chang-bujiang, but this is only open to tractors for about two months a year, in July and August. We used yaks brought from the villages around Tingri to cross the Fushi la. The journey took five days to Changbujiang but should have taken only four. The official timing, for which we had to pay, was seven.
It is a gentle walk over the Fushi la with magnificent views of Cho Oyu and Cho Rapsam, the peak on the western side of the Kyetrak glacier. The pass itself is on the high rolling hills of the Tibetan plateau and the Rongshar valley begins almost imperceptibly, starting with open yak pastures before cutting down into the increasingly precipitous gorge of the Rongshar Chu. This is on the southern side of the Himalayan divide and the flora is similar to that of the Nepalese valleys of the Rolwaling. The village of Darzang at around 4200 m is the highest village of the valley. It is built in the traditional Tibetan style with flat roofed houses terraced into the hillside. About ten miles further down the valley is the village of Changbujiang which is more like a Sherpa village with eaved roofs of wooden shingles weighed down with rocks. 'Phis is the district headquarters with a compound housing the small administration just above the village. We had to change our yaks here for those of the local villages for the final stage of the journey into the Menlung Chu. In 1987 there were no yaks and we had to use a certain number of porters as well, most of whom were women. In 1988, however, there were enough yaks from Changbujiang alone to carry much more gear up to base camp. The reason for this was the timber boom that is certainly increasing I ho prosperity of the village but is threatening to denude the magnificent forests of the Rongshar Chu and its side valleys. The limber is destined for construction work on the Tibetan plateau.
The Menlung Chu comes into the Rongshar about five miles below Changbujiang at the site of the Chua Gompa, a beautiful little monastery and temple which, at first sight seems hardly damaged,. but, sadly, on closer inspection it can be seen how extensive the damage is. Today it is derelict, though it would be comparatively easy to renovate. The Menlung Chu goes steeply through bamboo, rhododendron and conifer forest, between Gaurishankar and the outer peaks of the Menlung basin. In 1987 it took us two days to reach our base camp beside a huge rock under which the famous sage Milarepa is said to have sheltered. The height was four thousand metres. We reached base on 24 March and immediately began to explore. There is a glaciated open valley to the north side of Menlungtse with extensive high pastures, bounded on the north by .two attractive peaks of around 5800 m. The northwest and north faces of the mountain are formidable, guarded by sheer granite walls, threatened by seracs. The south face, overlooking the Menlung Chu, seemed to offer more hope. A series of buttresses and ridges reached down from the twin summits which are about a mile apart. We established an advance base on 1 April, just above the summer yak herders camp of Palbugthang and chose the south-southwest buttress for our attempt.
Establishing a first camp at the bottom of the initial difficulties at 5450 m, we started fixing ropes. For our first attempt we ran out about 600 m of fixed rope up a broken granite ridge of frighten-ingly loose rock, before setting out on 6 April for our first Alpine style push. In three days we experienced exhilarating climbing up rock that improved in quality with pitches about El Va in climbing standard. On reaching the intermediate snow section of the buttress, we were hit by a fierce storm that destroyed one tent and forced us to retreat. We made two further attempts but never managed to get higher, being hit by storms on each occasion. It was on one of the recces in the Menlung valley that we photographed tracks that seemed to have been made by a two legged creature.
I returned in the spring of 1988 with a different team. I was joined by David Breashears and Steve Shea from the United States and Andy Fanshawe from Britain. Charles Clarke and Jess Stock were to be our support team and in addition we had with us a film crew from the BBC Natural History Unit and a journalist and photographer from the 'Mail on Sunday' with Alan Hinkes, a very competent mountaineer, acting as their mail runner, all bent on hunting the Yeti.
Since it had been very cold and windy in 1987, we set out slightly later, reaching Kathmandu on 31 March, planning to cross the border at the Friendship Bridge on 5 April, only to receive a telex from the Chinese Mountaineering Association, on the eve of departure, that it was not convenient for us to climb Menlungtse. After a week of frantic telexes to Beijing we at last received the summons to cross the border. We later discovered that we were pawns in a wrangle between the Chinese Mountaineering Association and the Tibetan authorities over who had the right to give permission for Menlungtse.
We finally crossed the border on 12 April to be met by Fan Xia-chan, our very competent and friendly interpreter who told us that our Tibetan liaison officer had been forbidden to join us. Francis, us he asked us to call him, made up for this with his efficiency, Inking on the role of liaison officer.
We reached the roadhead a few miles short of the Tibetan side nf the Nangpa la on 16 April and set out on the 18th, with 89 yaks, for the Fushi la, the pass leading into the Rongshar valley. We arrived at the village and district headquarters of Changbujiang on 21 April, changed yaks there, to make base camp, at 4585 m at the yak herders' camp of Palbugthang, on 27 April. This was close to the site of our advance base of 1987 and had the advantage of being higher than our previous base camp, on a flat grassy valley bottom, surrounded by superb peaks.
The most attractive route up the mountain seemed the east ridge which leads straight to the main summit. On 28 April, David Breashears, Steve Shea and I walked up the valley to a view point where we could examine the east ridge. It looked formidable, being very long, bristling with cornices and obviously steep on cither side. We therefore decided to attempt the west ridge, which seemed more straightforward though it did entail crossing the west summit and making a high, but seemingly easy, traverse of a mile to the main top. On 1 May David Breashears, Andy Fanshawe, Steve Shea and I climbed Point 5753 m to the immediate south of base camp topping the south retaining wall of the Menlung valley, to acclimatize and get good views of the west ridge.
After fixing 180 m of rope on mixed ground on the lower part of the ridge, we set out on 7 May to make our first attempt on the mountain. That day we reached 5800 m, after climbing up a steep open ice-gully, with a covering of snow that barely gave support, to the crest of the west ridge. We found a good camp site and, although very tired, had a relaxed night.
The following morning a long easy traverse across the hanging glacier that covers the centre of the west face, took us to a wide scoop leading into the centre of the face. There was a pitch of good grade 3, first led by Andy Fanshawe, and then some hard green ice leading into a wide, filled crevasse below a huge bergs-chrund that stretched across the face. This gave another good secure camp site at 6250 m.
That night I led out a single rope length up 50 degree green ice and the following morning we set off, hoping to reach and climb the head wall. It was bitterly cold with a biting wind and, as the morning wore on, clouds built up over Nepal threatening to engulf us. It looked like a storm coming and since we had reached another bergschrund with a perfect camp site we decided to stop there at a height of 6600 m. The threatening clouds stopped like a huge tide on the south retaining wall of the Menlung valley, but we enjoyed the afternoon's rest and David Breashears ran out our two ropes over towards the gully we had seen from below that appeared to lead through the head wall.
We set out at seven, just after dawn* the next morning — 10 May, A diagonal traverse of five rope lengths, at first on neve and then on green ice, took us to the foot of the headwall. We reached it at midday, but it looked very much more formidable than it had from base camp. We were already short of rations and weighed down by our loads which included filming gear. It certainly didn't look as if we could get through that day. We were tired, not sufficiently acclimatized and so decided to retreat, getting back to base camp on the 19th.
After four days rest we had another look at the east ridge, this time going round onto the glacier on its east flank, but this aspect appeared even worse than the view we had already seen. At this point, David and Steve felt they didn't want to return to the west ridge. I was very tired still and so suggested to Andy, who was keen to have another go at the west ridge, that he ask Alan Hinkes, who had just returned from taking the 'Mail on Sunday's' story and film back to Kathmandu. Although he hadn't been over 5400 m on this expedition he was certainly extremely fit and had a very good track record, having made a new route on Xixabangma the previous year.
Alan had just been preparing to attempt, with Jess Stock, an un-climbed peak of 6301 m on the south retaining wall of the Menlung la, so I agreed to take his place. This climb, in fact, proved to be a lot harder than it looked and Jess and I were forced to turn back about a hundred metres below the summit. Nonetheless we had a great day's climbing lasting twenty hours and got some good views of Menlungtse.
Dave and Steve very gallantly carried gear to Andy and Alan up our fixed ropes on the west ridge on 18 May and at 2.00 a,m. on the 19th, Andy and Alan set out from base to reach our first camp at 5800 m that afternoon. They were very tired, however, and so decided to have a rest day. On the 21st they had a very long day moving through to our third camp at 6500 m. That night they were caught by a severe thunderstorm. Their tent was tucked into a wide crevasse, but during the night was nearly covered and they were forced, not only to dig it out, but shift it to a safer place. Next morning they discovered that their ropes had been buried and it took them four hours to dig them out. By that time it was too late to set out and so they had another rest day.
The morning of the 23rd dawned cloudy and threatening. They delayed setting out until they could see that the weather was set-lied, leaving at around 9.00 a.m. They had decided to travel light, leaving behind their tent and sleeping bags but taking down jackets and a stove in one rucksack so that the leader could climb unladen. Instead of traversing to the gully we had looked at on our first attempt, they climbed straight up towards the head wall, reaching it around midday. The rock on the wall was both loose and difficult giving mixed climbing on thin slabs alternating with icy runnels. Andy described much of the climbing as Scottish Grade V. The? top provided the crux up a frighteningly loose over-hanging chimney. It was Andy's turn to lead and for a moment he didn't think he was going to be able to make it, when Alan, the perfect, supportive second suggested.
'Take your sack off, take your crampons off and pretend your doing a pitch on Stanage in the wet.'
It did the trick. Concentrating on the few feet in front of him, Andy struggled up the chimney and pulled out over the top. They had made it through the Rock Band.
But, once on the ridge, their troubles were not over. Powder snow covered smooth slabs for a further 40 m and they had to pick their way precariously across before they reached firm snow. By this time it was nearly dark, but they kept going by the light of a head torch to reach the summit at 10.30 p.m. Beijing time. Before dark they had superb views of Cho Oyu, Gyachung Kang and the east summit of Menlungtse which was about a mile away across a broad easy saddle that led to the knife edged summit ridge of green ice.
They had already been on the go for thirteen and a half hours and so decided to satisfy themselves with the west summit. After a precarious descent in the dark they got back to their camp in the bergschrund at two in the morning, to find that their tent had' been holed by one of the rocks they had dislodged during their ascent of the rock head wall. They returned to the bottom the following day to join the rest of the team that had already started the return inarch with their yaks and yak herders.
We had climbed the west peak of Menlungtse, had found some more intriguing tracks around the base of the mountain but, most important of all, we had enjoyed a happy and cohesive expedition. It is a wonderful area with the main prize still waiting to be won nnd a host of smaller peaks still unclimbed.
Summary of statistics:
Area: The Menlung valley on the Nepalese border of Central Tibet in China.
First ascent the West Peak of Menlungtse (7023 m) on 23 May by Andy Fanshawe and Alan Hinkes.
First ascent Point 5753 m on the south wall of the Menlung valley on 1 May by Chris Bonington, David Breashears, Andy Fanshawe and Steve Shea.
Attempt on Point 6301 m reaching within a hundred metres of the summit on 20 May by Chris Bonington and Jess Stock.
Climbing team: Chris Bonington (leader), David Breashears Steve Shea (U.S.A.) and Andy Fanshawe (U.K.)
In support: Charles Clarke (doctor and catering) and Jess Stock (base manager),
BBC Natural History film unit: John-Paul Davidson (director), Nigel Meakin (cameraman) and Arthur Chesterman (sound).
Mail on Sunday: Iain Walker (journalist), David O'Neil (photographer) and Alan Hinkes (courier).
Chinese: Fan Xiachan (liaison officer and interpreter).
Menlungtse: approaches. (C. Bonington)