DORJE LHAKPA, 1992
I AM STILL struggling with the choices I made that allowed me to continue climbing. The outcome was that I made a lone ascent of a relatively unexplored but beautiful peak in the Jugal Himal of Nepal, Dorje Lhakpa (6966 m).1 This is the same group of mountains in the Himalaya that the well known peak, Xixabangma, is a part of. Dorje Lhakpa is located 55 km northeast of Kathmandu, near the eastern end of the Langshisa glacier. The Langshisa valley runs westward to join the Langtang valley near the grazing grounds known as Langshisa Kharka. It is the southern-most of the three principal peaks near the head of this glacier. The other two are Gur Karpo Ri (6874 m) and Lengpo Rang (7083 m). All three mountains are worthwhile objectives but Dorje Lhakpa is the most luring from this side and, therefore, the most often attempted.
Until 1981, Dorje Lhakpa was off limits to climbers by decree of Nepal's Ministry of Tourism. However, such are the difficulties of enforcing these rules, an ascent of the mountain by the west ridge is rumored to have taken place in the spring of 1980. Whether it was the first ascent, or followed in someone else's undisclosed foorsteps, is hard to verify. The first, official and recognized ascent of the mountain took place in 1981, when the peak was opened to joint foreign/Nepali teams only. A Japanese/Nepali team reached the summit via the mountain's west ridge.2 Over the following 10 years six teams attempted the peak with four of them achieving success. All of them climbed the same west ridge.
As permits to climb Dorje Lhakpa were unavailable until the spring of 1981, the peak's mountaineering possibilities were relatively unknown. In the sixties and seventies, much energy was devoted to exploring the big 8000ers. Since even nearby Xixabangma remained closed to the outside world until 1979, there was little traffic near Dorje Lhakpa from which photographs emerged. Even after the first ascent in 1981, a factor keeping some climbers out was Nepal's issuance of permits to only joint foreign/Nepali teams. The mountain's whereabouts was certainly obviqus, however, as it is visible from Kathmandu on a clear day. Although I saw photos of Dorje Lhakpa in the mid-eighties and was enticed by the vastly unvisited area, I was discouraged from going due to the added cost of the minimum of three Nepali members that must accompany any foreign/Nepali expedition.
1. Spelling of the name of this peak is given a Dorje Lakhpa in previous literature. Height was stated as 6989 m. The present spelling and height are as per the list of Elizabeth Hawley, Kathmandu -Ed.
2. See Illustrated Note 3, H.J. Vol. 39. p.204 -Ed.
I was inspired to apply for the peak in 1991 when the Ministry of Tourism explained to me the peculiarities of assembling a joint expedition. Since I had two experienced Sherpa friends who were interested in working with the expedition, the officials let me include our cook as the third Nepali of our team. To make matters simpler, my Sherpa friends were not interested in going to the summit. This simplified scenerio was the incentive I needed.
In keeping with my approach that the most enjoyment comes from climbing with the smallest groups, I decided to limit the number of climbers to three, not including the three Nepali members. Jon Aylward, from Yorkshire, England, one of the young generation of British alpinists, had written to me earlier about climbing in the Himalaya's less explored areas. A phone call to him was enough to arouse his interest. After a month's unsuccessful search for an additional partner, the two of us agreed to be the entire 'foreign' team.
I suspected that several unexplored ribs on Dorje Lhakpa would reveal brilliant climbs. But since we were unable to judge the true difficulties from our limited selection of photographs, we decided to take a wait and see approach to choosing a route. Our most promising line was the unclimbed buttress on the left side of the mountain's northwest face. Another possibility was a direct route up the central part of the face itself.
Though Dorje Lhakpa can be approached in five or six days from the village of Dhunche, a longer walk to base camp does wonders for getting one prepared for a Himalayan peak. We decided to extend the approach to four days by beginning from Sundarijal, a village 50 minutes from Kathmandu. This trail took us up a beautiful ridge to the Laurebinayak pass (4600 m) and led us through the famous Gosainkund lakes. From there we dropped down 2400 m to the village of Syabru, where the Dhunche trail joins from the west. Our route continued up the Langtang valley past Kyangin gompa (3800 m) to Langshisa Kharka. Here we entered the Langshisa valley and continued to a site on the Langshisha glacier (4780 m) directly beneath the north side of Kanshurum (6078x m). The path was heavily used until Kyangin gompa, but beyond this point we saw no one outside of our party. We had some difficulty with the porters in placing our base camp as high (east) on the glacier as we wanted. Some expeditions have made a lower base camp, and only established their Cl or ABC near the mountain. But with everyone carrying loads and a team of seven porters willing to work for elevated wages, in five days we managed to establish our base camp within a three hour walk of the Kanshurum-Dorje Lhakpa col. It was 2 April. We were in the middle of the Langshisha glacier in a fabulous spot which gave us a full view of the northwest side of Dorje Lhakpa as well as full-on views of Gur Karpo Ri and Lengpo Kang.
During the final days of hauiing loads up the glacier to this BC, Jon became fatigued and then somewhat ill. Although we suspected that his loss of strength came from some sort of intestinal bug, we could not cure him with any of the treatments we had. While I had exhausted myself in Kathmandu and been sick during the walk to Gosainkund lakes, I felt stronger by the time we reached base camp. For several days after our arrival, Jon rested, trying to give his body a chance to catch up. Meanwhile, I teamed up with Lhakpa Dorje and made a quick day trip up the 5100 m col at the base of the West Ridge. We found the remains of much fixed rope that perhaps the Korean party had deployed in the previous December's ascent of the mountain. After another day's rest, Jon was still not feeling strong. The weather had not been stable during the past two weeks and I was content to spend some time acclimatising and becoming familiar with the lower section of the west ridge. We assumed that no matter what route we ultimately ascended, we would descend the west ridge. Time spent reconnoitering' the lower part of this route would aid us in coming down quickly and safely later on.
Lhakpa Dorje and I took two days of provisions and a tent and camped on a low shoulder (5250 m) of the west ridge just before the climbing steepens up. There was little snow and the terrain included a good deal of hard blue ice on an exposed ridge. Though Lhakpa's experience on Himalayan mountains is impressive (two routes, to the summit, on Everest; Ama Dablam summit twice, etc.) he was not comfortable on this hard, blue ice without fixed rope. He was happy to remain in the tent the next day while I climbed up to have a look around. Old ropes, which had originally been anchored with snow stakes, were now dangling on top of the hard ice. To facilitate a future descent, I reset some anchors to make use of the rope that I could chip free from the ice. While clouds partially covered the sky, I made good use of the day. I climbed on 35 to 45 degree ice, passing nervously over some large crevasses that criss-crossed the ice-ridge. My high point was 6050 m; about 100 m above another large shoulder 'where the Koreans, and others, had obviously put up a camp. From my position at 6050 m on an exposed, narrow ridge, the remaining 300 m to the top left many unanswered questions. The knife edge I was on leveled out for about -200 horizontal meters. It then curved upwards at about a 30 degree angle and ran into some unstable looking seracs at about 6250 m. Above these blocks, the ridge continued straight upwards until, at about 6400 m, it took a sharp turn to the left. From where I was, it looked as though one could follow the ridge to the left and eventually gain some easier looking slopes which led towards the summit cone. Though overall the ridge did not rise steeply, one would be forced to climb to the right of the crest on snow and ice of about 55 degrees. It would not be easy to move quickly on such terrain as one would be making a continual rising or descending traverse.
I climbed back down to the tent where Lhakpa was waiting for me and enjoyed a beautiful sunset. The next day, the 9th, we returned to base camp hoping that after these three days Jon would be over whatever had been ailing him. When we arrived he was enthusiastic but skeptical. I took a rest day on the 10th and on the 11th Jon and I set off for an acclimatisation hike towards the Dorje Lhakpa/Kanshurum col. Only an hour out of base camp however, Jon realized he was not feeling his normal strength yet. The disappointment was agonizing for him but we had no choice other than turning back.
That afternoon we agreed that the only course of action that made any sense for him was to descend to Kyangin gompa the following day for a period long enough to fully recover. Our delightful cook assistant, Minga, was willing to go down to help with any translating and generally keep him company.
Unsure of what I should do during his absence, I started thinking about whether the west ridge could be soloed. As luck would have it, the 11th dawned exceptionally clear and cold. We had not had a day like it so far. As Jon gathered up the few things that he would carry down with him to Kyangin I pondered what to do if the weather remained clear. Up until the 11th we had had a series of days that would start out clear and then cloud up around 1.00 p.m. Usually we had a few inches of snow by late afternoon in base camp which melted off the next morning when the sun came up. I suggested to Jon that in the event there was no snow throughout the day, and the 12th dawned clear, I would consider attempting the mountain by myself. After his 12 days of illness, there was no way for us to tell how long it would take before he felt strong enough to climb. Furthermore, he would have to acclimatise before we could do any sort of alpine style climbing.
When Jon left base camp, I sensed that I should try the ridge while the weather was steady. But I had a hard time committing myself to the idea. The biggest mental barrier was the unknown terrain around the seracs that barred the ridge at 6250 m. I knew that it would only take one uncrossable crevasse to stop me. In addition, I did not like the thought of downclimbing 2000 m of hard ice after an exhausting climb. There were a lot of fears I had to resolve before I could make the decision to try the route alone.
On 11 April I took a walk up the Langshisa glacier towards Lengpo Kang. All the way up the rock covered labryinth 1 struggled with the idea of whether or not to attempt the west ridge during this spell of terrific weather. Every twenty minutes or so I stopped on the glacier and studied the ridge. It lay parallel to the glacier I was walking along. By hiking up the valley, I had a slightly different perspective each time I stopped. Ultimately, I decided I should start early the next day.
I did not extend my walk too far up the glacier as I wanted to be completely fresh and hydrated in the morning. By the time I returned to base camp, my mind was whirring. I explained my plan to Lhakpa Dorje and Pemba and asked Pasang, our cook, to prepare a special meal for supper. My preparations were rather simple; I carried only what was absolutely essential. To reach the summit and descend in 55 hours implied a willingness to solo terrain that I normally use a rope on. The factor that would make that possible was travelling with practically nothing the day I pushed for the top.
Sleep came that night more peacefully than I expected. I wrote a few thoughts to my friend, Anne, and described my feelings. They weren't so much of impending disaster, although I admitted a disaster was possible. I looked forward to the episode concluding. I could then loosen up and not feel the need to put myself through such an ordeal. They were familiar feelings and I knew that the emotions were unique to mountaineering situations. [Even the intense anxiety of speaking to an important audience does not have the same impact on me. In situations before a difficult climb, my overriding emotion is a fear of being unable to handle every situation that might arise. The emotion includes a fear of dying. Yet it is more a fear of the 'What if's?' than the fear of being hitby a falling stone or a rappel anchor giving way. At any rate, I usually don't sleep before an important climb and on the night of the 11th I slept reasonably well.]
In my mind I broke the climb into two sections and allowed myself to consider turning back at my previous highpoint. In addition, I felt illogical assurance from Lhakpa Dorje's offer to accompany me for about an hour's walk from base camp. Having someone to begin the walk with" was extremely comforting. I didn't like leaving base camp by myself. It was a significant act of companionship that allowed me to sleep deeply. Perhaps it was the camaraderie that I missed so much. In any event, by 7:30 a.m. I was on my way.
On any climb that I have attempted there are different battles that the team faces as a whole and that I face individually. Questions of strategy, team coordination, and maintaining equilibrium among members, are team problems. Personal drive, maintaining my health, and accepting the demands of others are a few of the individual challenges. When climbing alone all the battles become personal. Strategies and actions during a climb demand so much attention that personal doubts of the moment are quieted while the 'production' side takes over. Each difficulty requires quick analysis followed by decisive action. When time is of the essence, I think less about fear. This is not to say I don't fear the consequences of my actions. I'm always evaluating the risks from moment to moment. Yet my imagined fears are usually worse than confronting the true predicament. When I face a problem in reality, I'm much more comfortable with it than when I come upon the same problem in my imagination.
The Climb of Dorje Lhakpa
I lie in my tent with the radio bringing news of the outside world; the elections in Great Britain, the acquittal of a few Los Angeles policemen for beating up Rodney King, the death of a great Indian film director, the severe struggles for democracy in the streets of Kathmandu___ It all seems so incredibly intense. I am dulled by the exhaustion I have pushed myself through. I have dug deeply into my mental and physical reserves and I am living on each calorie that I swallow. Outside my tent stands the shimmering wall of the northwest face of Dorje Lhakpa. On its right hand border rises the ridge I .have just climbed. I know this view is spectacular but I don't want to take it all in right now. I just page through Newsweek and let my mind flow in a stream of conscious state that is unobstructed. This is my reward for having pushed myself to the conclusion of this climb. It is an unfiltered, unprotected state of mind that flows like sparkling water gurgling out of a mountain spring on a summer day. I can feel the coolness on my tongue and lips. Its soothing gentleness kindles relaxation and the release of anxiety.
I was pretty maxed out at times. Descending the rock ridge at night, I was like a little child with no strength left. I tried to choke down a biscuit as 1 stood in the lonely darkness. I was so thirsty. Placing small bits of ice in my mouth gave faked momentary relief. I needed strength to go on. The ridge wound its way into the shadows. Over the cornices at its end lay the two rappels to the base of the triangular ice-face. My bivouac tent was there, offering safety and water. I lived for that arrival. I was wiped out but I could not let myseif stop. Surrounded by the blue light of the moon, I faithfully followed the beam of my headlamp. I thought about Assiniboine (in the Canadian Rockies) where, during winter of 1976, I verbalized the same thoughts I was having now to my partner, Tom Breeze. Back then we had only to keep moving a while longer before reaching the hut. As I heard myself say the words sixteen years earlier, I kept moving on Dorje Lhakpa. 1 could make no mistakes. Employing both my hand tools, I negotiated short ice traverses between rock, clawing along until I reached a restful stance. I lavished the thought of lying in my bivi tent, safe from the verticality tugging at my heals. I negotiated one rappel and set off on the second, impatient with the clumsiness I displayed to the stars and moon. Then, as my weight came fully on the rope, I remembered the last 15 m and how precipitous they were. I had removed the ice screw that held this section of rope 17 hours earlier that day. It was also dark when the climb was just beginning. I thought I might need that ice screw higher on the mountain and, as it turned out, 1 had. Now it was time to replace it with another. It would be foolish to take a chance now. I reharnessed my tools and stepped up on my front points to unweight the rope. After chopping a small platform for footing on the 65 degree ice, I drove in a solid screw. As I fixed the rappel line, I felt a sense of satisfaction. I could still take precautions though my body weeped for rest. When I reached the tent a few minutes later it was 10 p.m. Barring a mistake, 1 would make it down the next day.
Twenty-four hours earlier I had set my alarm at 3 a.m. and set off from my 5950 m bivouac at 5 a.m. In my ultra light rucksack I carried a liter of water, 30 m of 6 mm line, some shortbread, sunscreen, film and a camera. I celebrated in the beauty of the sunrise, for it had taken me a full year to return to climbing after suffering severe frostbite on Dhaulagiri in 1990. I dimbed along the long horizontal section of ridge staying to the right of the crest. I prayed that the seracs at 6250 m would allow me a safe passage. My pace was comfortable though rapid. As the daylight widened my world, I was surprised by the airiness of the ridge. It was much more exposed than the photos had revealed. Langtang Lining caught the light of the sun before any of the other peaks. Its beauty left me dazzled. Alone, in a sea of peaks, I felt like a flea on the arm of a mighty giant.
As 1 approached the seracs, a yearning for the answer to my doubts made "me impatient to reach them. A short, steep wall led me into a labyrinth of ice. Insecurity competed with my desire to go on. 1 climbed delicately up a shattered ice band and traversed right on a narrow ice ramp beneath an overhanging wall into a cluster of 30 m seracs. The ice underneath me was studded with crevasses and I stepped carefully to avoid them. After a tricky step over a bergschrund I climbed the wall to my left. In another 50 m I found remnants of a camp. It was 8 a.m. and my mind began recalculating the distance to the summit. Had the previous team begun from this point and not lower where 1 had bivouacked? It would mean many more hours of climbing than I had anticipated but there was no question of stopping here.
Beyond the seracs, I was barred by a horizontally running crevasse across the face of the ridge. I climbed delicately up, stepped onto the lip, and planted my tools in the soft snow above. But I could not make the move. Would the tools hold if the snow beneath my feet gave way? Losing precious time, I traversed along the edge of the crevasse searching for a place I could cross. After a fruitless 20 minute search, I returned to my initial spot. I dug the tools in again and pulled hard to step up. They held and I panted heavy sighs of relief. The thought of this and other obstacles on my descent preoccupied me though. I had rope to rappel these difficulties, but I had insufficient anchors for many of them.
Once across the crevasse I continued climbing the ridge's right hand face. Numerous smaller crevasses carved through the ice. In each case I found a point where the edges came close enough to stem across and continue upwards. I was making good progress when I front-pointed up a 55 degree sheet of ice levelling onto a shoulder at the point where the ridge made its sharp turn to the left. Three more hours had elapsed and I was feeling the weight of the numerous difficulties I would be forced to reverse before getting any rest.
I was completely unprepared for the view that awaited me when I stopped and surveyed the last 500 m. From the shoulder I was looking into a 200 m wide glacial amphitheater. The ridge I had hoped to continue on became a sheer-sided knife edge of crumbly rock circling around to form the left border of this bowl. It was bare of any snow for 200 gradually rising meters. A three meter wide, snow-covered bergschrund separated the snowshoulder I was standing on, from the basin I was looking into. Another open crevasse cut across the middle of the bowl barring access to the face beyond. Yet the real dilemma was above. As the walls swept up towards the base of the summit cone, a wide open, nasty bergschrund cut continuously across the entire breadth of the face. As I looked up I gave in. I could not find a route through the upper bergschrund. I ate and drank a bit as I stomped around in the cold trying to lace together a crazy string of manoeuvers that would bring me to a point above the gaping schrund. Without much confidence, I envisioned a complicated solution involving a long traverse and very steep ice climbing which, although extremely unlikely, might justify going a little bit further. To cross the 3 m bergschrund immediately in front of me I took out my 6mm line and tied it to a snow-stake that an earlier team had left behind. While remnants of ropes had been plainly visible up to this point, I could see no sign of progress beyond it. Slowly letting out line, I inched my way out across a stable looking snow-bridge. Whoosh! Instantly, I was up to my waist in a crevasse. My reaction was a call for sanity. A strong voice scolded me for pushing too far. I had no back-up system and only a slight injury would put me out of the game. But another voice answered the first, suggesting I ignore it. I chose which to listen to and led out and across the rest of the bridge. As I pulled my rope across I felt a strong sense of risk. I was amazed at the determination I had. If I stopped now, I was letting doubt and uncertainty make decisions for me instead of logic and planning.
Entering the bowl rewarded my decision. What appeared to be an unmanageable crevasse actually had a simple snow bridge to cross. I then had to deal with the wall in front of me. The ridge to the snow shoulder at 6400 m began to .feel like the approach to an alpine climb in the Rockies. I felt cut off inside a huge amphitheater unable to see the ridge I had climbed to get there. Reaching the summit from here became a climb in itself, separated in my mind from the route below.
Refocusing my energy, I gained elevation rapidly. The complicated route I had chosen from the shoulder began to appear unfeasable, however. Rather than a traverse along the lower lip of the bergschrund, I could see that hundred meters of traversing on difficult ground would be necessary to cross the gap to the upper slopes. Again I searched for a way across. There was a second possibility where the 'schrund split into two veins. There were two points on the 50 degree face, about 40 m horizontally apart, where each vein narrowed to a manageable 1.5 break. Beneath them was a mass of broken seracs and crevasses which prevented me from considering the possibility earlier. From my new perspective, I could see a traverse along the lip of the 'schrund would take me to the first narrowing of the lower vein. If 1 could get over the first break, I could make a 40 m traverse left and deal with the second. From there it looked like a clear 55 degree slope to the base of the summit pyramid. Above, I knew I would have one last* bergschrund to cross. Unlike the bowl, the pyramid was visible from base camp.
I thought it was worth one more try. After climbing up to the lip of the enormous gap, I edged my way towards the veins fanning out to my left. Huge holes lay beneath me as I traversed over. I concentrated on climbing to avoid the exposure. When I reached the point where the gap narrowed, I was in luck. 1 placed my axes in the firm ice above hauled myself up. Like several earlier passages, I knew I'd need to rappel this on the descent. Moving left was easy. With another move over the second vein, I was perched above the bergschrund. I almost could not believe it. The fifty five degree face slowly eased back as I climbed upward and eventually I reached the summit cone. The last crevasse did not pose such a problem for me. I crossed a long, slender bridge of ice with my hands gripping the top edge and my front points on the face. I was doing things now that I would have been reluctant to do with a solid belay at any other time. My desire to see this climb through was strong.
Fifteen minutes later, I was on top. There was little wind and not such cold as on the summit of Dhaulagiri 18 months earlier. Clouds drifted across the summit and obscured my view for a few minutes. I was amazed at where 1 stood. My watch read a few minutes after 2 p.m. I sat and ate more shortbread for strength. The south face of Xixabangma came into view. I appreciated those who had made quick ascents of it. It was only a short distance away to the north. Gur Karpo Ri and Lengpo Kang became visible through the clouds. I would have liked a clearer view from the summit but I could make no complaints about the weather. It was stable and unthreatening.
I didn't stay long. The downclimbing would take all the strength I had left. If I made no mistakes route-finding through the nasty bergschrund, I could reach the ice shoulder before dark. I knew front pointing down the ridge would occupy me long into the moonlit evening. It didn't matter though. I could go on all night. 'Slow and steady' would become my mantra until I reached the safety of my tent.
Descending the summit ice-slope, I got confused and crossed a different snow-bridge over the first crevasse. This surprised me. How easily I could become disoriented further down the slope when I would be looking for the twin veins I needed to recross! Subsequently, I followed my crampon indentations so as to come out in exactly the right spot above the 'schrund. The upper edge of the vein came up suddenly beneath my feet as I descended facing in. I had to climb up again and left, to a patch of hard ice to drive a good screw for the first rappel. After the traverse back right, the one snow-stake I was carrying drove in firmly. I was terribly relieved it felt solid. My second short rappel went quickly.
I reached the shoulder at 4 p.m.; it had taken me five hours to the summit and back. With only a few hours of light left and fatigue tugging on every muscle, I started down with quiet resolve. Over and over I repeated to myself that I could go on all night if need be. I reaped the benefit of some old fixed line in places but the condition of it was inferior. I could not trust it to hold much weight. The sun dropped behind the horizon while I descended in a trance of activity. One set of front points followed by another, two axe placements and a rest. Over and over into the darkness. I could eventually see the light from the cook shelter a mile beneath me on the glacier. I knew that the others had been watching me all day and were now worried. Thirst and hunger dominated my senses, however. I summoned forth the determination to continue without agonizing over my speed. Whatever it took, I was willing to accept the price. It seemed a journey without end.
By 9:45 p.m. I was descending the last few meters of the triangular ice-face. I stopped above the final, 10 m, vertical wall, only minutes from my bivouac tent. I replaced the screw, as I explained earlier, and rappelled down. It was a final act of cautiousness. At 10 p.m. I was at my bivouac tent.
The next morning I descended the ridge with the comfort of knowing I had negotiated this section earlier. I was familiar with the terrain and made use of the knowledge. To my utter surprise, in the notch where the West ridge ends in the col, Lhakpa Dorje stood waiting for me. He had come up from base camp early in the morning, knowing that I would descend and need a friend. It was one of those moments one never forgets. The coming together of two friends high on a Himalayan glacier. I hoped I would never climb a mountain by myself again.
The solo ascent of Dorje Lhakpa (6966 m) by the west ridge on 13 April, 1992.