BRITISH SEPU KANGRI EXPEDITION, 1998
SIR CHRIS BONINGTON AND VICTOR SAUNDERS
CHRIS BONINGTON AND CHARLES CLARKE first saw Sepu Kangri when flying from Chengdu to Lhasa in 1982 on the way to attempt the North East Ridge of Everest. The entire team was struck by the huge range of mountains stretching to the north in Eastern Tibet. One peak dominated the rest, which we later learnt was Sepu Kangri. At 6950 m. it is the highest peak of the Nyangla-Qen-Tangla Shan, a range of mountains as extensive as the entire Swiss Alps.
Jim Fotheringham and Chris Bonington set up an expedition in 1989 to attempt Sepu Kangri but their permission was withdrawn at the last minute.
Undeterred, Chris Bonington and Charles Clarke made a recce in August 1996, finding their way to the northern and southern sides of the mountain and identifying a feasible route from the North.
In Spring '97, Bonington led a team of seven to the north side of the mountain. Bonington, Jim Fotheringham, Jim Lowther and John Porter attempted the north ridge of Seamo Uylmitok as the best route to the upper reaches of the mountain, but suffered appalling weather and were forced to abandon their attempt at a height of 6050 m. Charlie Clarke and Duncan Sperry were in support while Jim Curran made the expedition film.
The 1998 Attempt Approach
Weather records from the Met. Office in Lhasa indicated that precipitation was lower in autumn than in Spring and that consequently there would be better weather for climbing. The team therefore decided to make their attempt through September into October, leaving the United Kingdom on 28 August.
Colour Plates 6-7 Photos 8-9
We had already been warned via satellite phone by Charlie that the monsoon season had been particularly heavy and that all the bridges on the approach to Sepu Kangri were down and that in many places the path had been swept away. It was invaluable having him and Elliot already there and they came down to meet us at Khinda, at the roadhead.
It took a day's hard work hauling all the gear over the river Yachu by a steel cable they had stretched across the river at the site of the original bridge. We had arrived at an inconvenient time for the local community since all their yaks were being used to help in the harvest of barley and we were warned we'd have to wait for at least a week. After a lot of bargaining we were promised 30 horses, which could at least carry part of our gear up to base camp. Elliot was left in charge of the rear party with Tachei, our liaison officer. It took us three days to reach base camp, involving another hauling session across the river just below the Samde monastery, this time suspended only by a yak hide rope .
It was very different from Spring '97, when the hills were still parched brown by the bitter winter cold and the Samtso Taring was covered in ice. Now, the hills were still green with their light covering of grass, and the holy lake was a brownie-grey, tainted from the glacier streams that flow into it. Our neighbours were out to greet us, when we reached base camp. Their warmth and enthusiasm was really touching. It was like coming home. The weather was warm and sunny and we were full of confidence that this time we would climb Sepu Kangri.
Acclimatisation and Recces
We spent the next week making a series of training climbs and recces. Graham and Scott made what was almost certainly a first ascent of the snow peak behind base camp on the 16 September, calling it Thaga Ri (5930 m) or Saddle Peak, because of its appearance. The local people had no name for it. The following day, Charlie and Victor climbed a neighbouring snow peak, which they named Charlie's Peak (5900 m).
On 18 September Graham and Scott set out to make an attempt on Chomo Mangyal, the Wife of Sepu, but they encountered appalling and very dangerous snow on both the west and north ridges and retreated from about 500 m below the summit. Meanwhile, Chris, Elliot and Victor set out to make a recce of the western approach to the mountain. This was the route favoured by Jim Fotheringham the previous year. On that occasion the team had reached the crest of the ridge linking with Seamo Uylmitok (The Turquoise Flower) but visibility had been bad and the route seemed threatened by seracs. We therefore chose the route up the north ridge of Seamo Uylmitok.
This year, it was very different. The snow conditions were very much better and we had good visibility. Victor had picked out a good line up onto the ridge, avoiding a long traverse of the ridge itself and on 20 September we reached the end of the ridge, just above the upper Thong Wuk and could see a reasonable route up the glacier into the big basin of the western cwm of Sepu Kangri. This seemed the best route.
The First Attempt
Victor, Elliot, Graham, Scott and I set out from our first camp on the Moraine at 5400 m below the 'Fotheringham' Ridge on 28 September. Graham, Scott and Victor had already improved the short length of fixed rope we had placed up a steep little ice gully and across some avalanche prone snow slopes leading to the crest of the ridge. We were at the end of the ridge by ten in the morning and Scott started trail-breaking across and up the glacier leading towards the upper basin. There was some deep snow and some very deep holes to avoid, but by three in the afternoon we had found our way onto the brink of the western cwm, after weaving our way round serac walls and along narrow ridges between the moat-like crevasses. Although it was still quite early the glacier bowl collected the heat and we opted to stay there for the night.
The following morning we pressed on up the cwm, Graham and Scott in the lead. We had a choice of ridge, the northwest one, leading towards Seamo Uylmitok, or the west one, bounding the southern aspect of the cwm. The latter seemed safer, since there was evidence of wind slab avalanches on the other. We established camp just below the crest of the west ridge at a height of 6530 m. We were tired but had only just over 400 m to go to the summit and the route up the ridge looked reasonable.
It started to snow that afternoon but we were not too worried since Charlie had given us a good forecast for the next day from the Met Office at Bracknell. However, it was still snowing the following morning, and continued to do so throughout the day. Graham and Scott dug a snow cave to avoid a third wet night since their single skin tent produced a lot of condensation.
The forecast that evening was less favourable and we began to worry about how we were going to get out in a whiteout. The next morning it was snowing hard with visibility down to a few metres. We were going to have to retreat while we could. To complicate matters both Scott and Graham had a bout of vomiting, prompted either by fumes in the cave or food poisoning. Understandably, neither were at their strongest. There was a high avalanche risk and we descended into the cwm, abseiling straight down the serac wall in an attempt to reduce this danger. We were lucky to have one break in the clouds to give us a general impression of the direction of descent. Once in the cwm, Victor led out on a compass bearing.
We managed to reach the site of Camp 2 by midday, left our tents and some food there and continued down past Camp 1, all the way back to base camp, reaching it, very tired at eight o clock that night. One more day of fine weather would almost certainly have seen us reach the summit.
The Second Attempt
After a week's rest we returned to the fray, setting out from base camp on 8 October. The following morning we climbed the fixed ropes to the crest of the 'Fotheringham Ridge'. A lot of snow had fallen since our first attempt and progress was very slow. I was going slower than the others, still feeling tired from the first attempt. It took us six hours just to reach the end of the 'Fotheringham Ridge'. At this rate we were not going to make Camp 2 that day. In addition it was snowing in gusts. We sat down and discussed what to do. Just before setting out from Europe Victor had suggested we took snow shoes. I had a coupe of pairs in my climbing store at home and had added them to my gear. We had managed to buy another pair in Kathmandu. In all my years of climbing, I had never used them, but we had all been impressed by how effective they can be on our descent in the storm at the end of our first attempt, for Victor had brought a pair up with him then.
It was becoming increasingly obvious that they were essential if we were going to make any progress at all. I decided therefore that it would be best if just three, using snow shoes, should press on while two of us should pull back. Since I was going slower than the others it made sense for me to drop out, and Elliot, being the least experienced and also because he had not been part of the original climbing team, very generously volunteered to drop out as well.
The other three fitted on their snow shoes and after an emotional farewell, plodded up into the cloud towards the Western Cwm of Sepu Kangri.
Victor take up the tale : The SecondAttempt : Victor Saunders
Bracknell was right, the storm arrived as predicted and with three days before the yaks arrived, our base camp was in the grip of a snow storm, the wind drove white horses onto the lake shore, and the wind-power generators were spinning, the one ( the Ampair) sweetly as a Porsche 911, and the other (Airwind) as violently as a clapped out Beetle I once used to own.
Seven days ago, on the morning of the 8 October we set out as a team of 5. The original pairings, Scott Muir and Graham Little, the Hares, and
Chris Bonington, Elliot Robertson and myself, the Tortoises, had joined forces for a major, and probably the last, attempt on the mountain.
On the way to Camp 1 we paid our obligatory visit to Zamteng the Hermit whose isolated dwelling guards the approach to the mountain. Zamteng said, rather wisely we all thought, that we should be aware of avalanches, need to have good weather and above all, need to have good team spirit if we were to return safely from the top of the Sepu Kangri, 'The Great White Sky God'.
He wished us well, and said he'd ask the passing pilgrims to do pujas for us, then returned to his silence and the compelling vistas of the holy valley below the hermitage. We moved on to Camp 1, the chaos of camp cooking and the neurosis of facing the big climb.
The day had begun with snow flurries at base camp, the sun shone briefly on us at the hermitage, thunderstorms and hail followed us up to the camp; we had every sort of weather except a clear view of Sepu Kangri, which even in the clear spells sported a huge cloud cap.
The next day too had every kind of weather from indifferent to bad.
We had cleared the fixed rope of snow, and had been wading knee deep in the fresh powder when we reached our little dump of food and snow shoes at the end of the 'Fotheringham Ridge' by 11 a.m. Chris was feeling slow and not fully recovered from our last climb. He dearly wanted us to climb as a group of friends, a single team of five, but it was clear that to have any chance of success, everyone would need snow shoes; and we had only three pairs between us.
Chris chose to return with young Elliot who elected to accompany him back to base. The parting was emotional, Chris and Elliot hugged each of us warmly, and added their well wishing to those of the hermit and his pilgrims.
The next day poor young Elliot, having made the sacrifice in graceful style, had to endure the confines of base camp buried in book and walkman.
Scott, Graham and I ploughed on towards Camp 2. At 1 p.m. the flurries of snow had joined seamlessly into a prolonged storm. This was a little dangerous as I had just fallen into a small crevasse and the next one could be a chasm. Above us tottered unseen seracs. And worse, in the white-out, we had no idea of which direction our wandering route took next. We decided to give it just half an hour before returning to Camp 1. Half an hour later, to the minute, the clouds cleared just enough to show us the way through the ice-cliffs to Camp 2.
The sky cleared during the night, and the long predicted Good Spell had begun.
During the dark early hours of the 10th we made excellent progress; our snow shoes were supporting us well as Graham, Scott and I took turns to break trail across the western cwm. In three hours we had left a wandering trench which kinked at the Great Central Crevasse, and curved rightwards to the West Ridge.
Dawn brought views we had never seen. 'We can see for hundreds of miles !' Scott enthused into his video diary, then pointed his digital camera at the panorama. Nearby Mount Sepu, a cone with a Jacobean cap; in the middle, the long valley leading out to the west; while far away, like clouds on the horizon, hazy peaks, perhaps the Himalayan chain, glimmered in the morning sun.
The white mound of the Turquoise Flower, 6600 m, rose above the western cwm on our left. But a sight unseen so far lay before us. The summit of Sepu Kangri was free of cloud. We could see the frightening, serac burdened northwest face, with the two ridges reaching out to enfold the western cwm. There were the avalanche slopes leading up to camp 3, and above that place, the looming buttress of the west shoulder, the U- shaped notch, the hump-backed west summit, the house-shaped serac, the last step. We had named all the places in our own minds, these are some of the names I used, Scott and Graham probably had other, more graphic ones.
By 10.30 am the advance party, as Scott persisted in naming us in the radio calls to Chris, had reached the worrying slopes below Camp 3. In spite of the deep fresh snow, we had made such good time in snow shoes, that Scott and I had begun to secretly entertain thoughts of turning our journey to Camp 3 into a summit push. But Graham had other ideas.
'What do you think about the snow?'
This is the usual code for expressing deep concern. Scott and I thought the slope was safe, at least this morning. Graham remained unconvinced. He untied, added his best wishes to those of our base camp staff, the film team, the Hermit, his pilgrims, Chris and Elliot, and ploughed back into the western cwm, and thence towards the turquoise flower. Graham was unhappy about the sub Camp 3 slopes, but he showed an extraordinary bravery that day. Not only did he set off alone to climb a peak of 6600 m, but also did so circumnavigating crevasses big enough to chuck aircraft carriers into.
Scott and I ploughed on and up to the snow cave at Camp 3. I felt part of a very strange creature indeed, part Tortoise part Hare, a true Chimera.
At Camp 3, We spent just over an hour and a half making tea and digging out the snow hole. So much snow had fallen since our last visit that the entrance was now a metre deeper than before, and the ceiling had sagged alarmingly, provoking horribly claustrophobic thoughts.
It had begun to cloud over by 1.20 p.m. when Scott and I, having rehydrated ourselves, excavated the snow hole enough to satisfy our craving for a secure retreat.
We watched Graham, a tiny speck, reach his summit and turn down for Camp 2.
It was 30-odd metres to the crest of the west ridge above the camp. The looming buttress, which seemed an awesome and steep barrier before, proved to have almost perfect cramponing snow. Gone was all the deep soft powder of the western cwm, the west ridge had been blasted over the past days, the snow was compact and firm, and formed of wind carved waves. It was enjoyable, the views were opening out, the snow was good, we were moving fast. This was a perfect day. Scott turned to me and said 'I love the mountains!' And he meant it.
Across the top of the looming buttress was a smiling gash, a crevasse slice, which we followed in one easy but spectacular pitch, and above that a pair of small basins to the West Ridge. Suddenly we were on the corniced ridge leading to the summit.
'It's like the view from a plane!' said Scott
Below our feet, the south face of Sepu Kangri dropped in one huge ice- sheathed cliff to the valley floor bouncing up on the far side with ragged- edged horizons topping each other towards Burma and Bhutan. Over all this southern sky battalions of dark clouds were lining up.
The wind, from which we had been protected till now, was battering the south face, vibrating with the force of the impact. Above us, the rest of the ridge was shrouded in the cloud cap, which we finally understood to be natural product of the fierce wind, it was orographic, lifting up the moist southern air and forcing it to condense out as vapour.The cap was filled with mist and stinging ice driven up the mountain by the wind.
As we stood, braced and leaning, the clouds began to arrive, and brought more winds with them. We had been so engrossed we did not sense the impending storm.
It was now 5.30 p.m. We radioed Chris who said that the Bracknell Weather Centre predicted minor showers this afternoon, and good weather tomorrow. Scott and I needed at least two hours of good visibility to reach the top, and this had now gone. We would have to follow the ridge with some accuracy. To our right overhung the cornice above the south face, to our left, avalanche prone slopes waited at the head of the northwest face. There was not much room for error.
The wandlets I had cut at base camp would soon be our only means of navigation. Even with these, we would have serious difficulty returning from the summit in a night time blizzard. I quickly ran a list of names through my mind, people who had failed to do just that. As Scott and I battled with the impulse to go forward and the rational to turn back, at least till tomorrow, the distance of visibility had shrunk to the distance we could prod our ski pole.
There was no choice. We turned down, and then failed to find our next marker wandlet, just 20 metres, a cricket pitch distance away till a momentary lull in the wind brought a thirty second clear spell.
Back in the snow cave we were protected from the weather. We were happy, the forecast was good, we knew the way, the route was clearly climbable. We would need six hours to do the return trip from the snow hole. We set our alarm clocks for 2 a.m., and by the time we had brewed a couple of litres of tea and eaten a handful of Jordan's Crunchy, and pulled on our boots and clothes and harnesses it was 4 a.m. We stood outside the hole unable to believe what we found. The ridge just above us moaned as the spindrift arched high into the night sky. We went back to the snow hole, as claustrophobic as a deep freeze buried in a cave.
At 8.00 a.m. I crawled out to radio Chris who said the weather today was forecast to be fine. I felt the blizzard tearing the air to shreds and looked at the radio incredulously. 'But it's just like the Cairngorms here!' I said.
By 10.30 a.m. Scott was heating his Berghaus Baltoro boots over the stove. I'd been out again, and a certain depression was entering into our mood.
We had more brews and ventured out at noon to find there was no change in the weather.
'What is the most important thing in Bridge?'
'I don't know, Scottie, what is?'
'Be bold in your bidding! We should go for it.'
So at 2 p.m. we tried the bold approach, standing in the blizzard on the ridge above the camp, shouting into the wind Scott mouthed the words 'Let's get the fuck out of here!'
The descent was now beginning to worry us. The sub Camp 3 slope was ready to slide off in one big mass, and as the spindrift settled on it hour by hour it was become increasing unstable.
That night we slept badly, we had hardly eaten, we were running out of things to brew (we had been very enthusiastic in that department, and dehydration was not a problem, though frequent pee stops were becoming one) and the stale air inside our deep freeze was giving us mild but constant headaches.
I dreamt a dream of geometrical ghosts. A pair of curiously triangular figures carrying, perhaps, scythes? The first figure was beckoning. I woke with a bitter taste in my mouth, and ghosts in my mind.
By the time we descended on the sub Camp 3 slope, the blizzard had been blowing for 36 hours. The moaning sound it made over the ridge was now a dull roar, a jet turbine noise. The slopes below us were going to be loaded.
'That slope is humungulous, it's just Russian Roulette' said my friend. I knew. I thought that the slope needed another name, the sub Camp 3 slope did not convey what I felt then about it, a more suitable name, at least for me, would be 'The Slope of Abject Terror.' The thought of it gave me asthma, and I pulled a large gasp on my inhaler before ploughing down into it. Scott carried the snow shovel. You cannot dig an avalanche victim out with an ice axe, and fatality is exponentially proportional to burial time. So speed and shovel. My only chance.
The Slope of Abject Terror curved away like an upside down bowl, after 50 metres it dipped to 45 degrees, the optimum sliding angle and a crevasse appeared on the right. This feature, 3 metres wide and indeterminably deep was our island of safety. Scott and I hoped that it was wide enough to swallow avalanches from above..
I kicked a ledge inside and made a safe snowy stance, and strangely, at that moment I sensed one of the triangular ghosts fade away.
Scott looked a wee bit disconcerted as I counter balanced him over the edge of the crevasse.
The rest of the Abject Terror, unseen in the whiteout ran out to the western cwm like that 80 m ski jump thing. Though he tried, he failed to set off the next part of the slope, and by the time I joined him on the glacier the second geometrical ghost had also faded away.
Our legs were tired and the rest of the day went by like a marathon long after you have hit the wall. Ploughing our trench back to Camp 2, the corridor, the 'Fotheringham Ridge', that awful crusty snow down to Camp 1, where dear kind Elliot had volunteered to come up with the Sherpa staff, and help us clear the camp. The news from base was of failing generators and Charlie's windmills finally coming good, and also, the good doctor had been tending to a minor epidemic of tummy bugs. Elliot asked how we were feeling.
'No bother!.. Our bugs are well dead of starvation and altitude sickness!' said Scott.
Our sense of humour was returning, but as we passed under the hermitage, I found time to stop. Zamteng's flags were fluttering, a white smoke billowed for a second in the breeze; a sign? Can he make black smoke? I asked myself. I sat down on a red granite boulder half buried in the water. The stream trickled like Buddhist bells. I looked up at the storm veiled mountain, and, well, I was happy. Happy to have been so close, and happy to be alive. And happy because, like Scottie, I too love the mountains.
Objectives: To explore the eastern approaches to Sepu Kangri
To make the first ascent of Sepu Kangri, 6950 m.
Peaks climbed :
Charlie's peak, 1st ascent by Charles Clarke and Victor Saunders on 17 September
Saddle Peak, 1st ascent by Graham Little and Scott Muir on 16 September
Seamo Uylmitok (The Turquoise Flower) 1st ascent by Graham Little on 10 October.
West Shoulder of Sepu Kangri, 6830 m, 1st ascent by Scott Muir and Victor Saunders on 10 October.
Members: Chris Bonington, (leader), Charles Clarke, Graham Little, Scott Muir, Elliot Robertson.
Film Team: Martin Beldersen, Jim Curran, Greig Cubitt.