THE ASCENT OF SEPU KANGRI
Tlo begin with it was all a dream. A time, a place, a mountain, a team.
I was neither the leader nor the visionary. I was simply a climber; one whose job it would be to attempt to scale this all but forgotten peak located in the vastness of the eastern Tibetan highlands. This was a place known as the Nyanchen Tangla mountains. A place I couldn't even pronounce. Somewhere north of the Himalaya. Somewhere very few Tibetans had been to, to say nothing of foreigners. This was an area so cut off from the capital, Lhasa, that no one there even knew if the roads were intact to reach it! This was a mountain that had probably been seen by less than 20 climbers in all history. The time was chosen for me: the autumn season of 2002, four full years since the last attempt to climb it. Obviously, this was not a very popular place. Not even for Tibetans. Only seven families lived permanently on the exquisitely beautiful shores of Sam Tso Taring, the lake beneath the daunting north face of this mountain. Seven families and a hermit, Sam Ten Tsokpu. The wise man of the lake. High above the lake, on the crest of an ancient terminal moraine ridge, perched with a magnificent view of Sepu's lake filled valley and the stunning peaks to the west and north, this Tibetan monk lived in utter isolation from the world. He never came down, even to the shores of the lake.
These were the people who would host our stay in Tibet. These were the families who held onto a way of life that hadn't changed much in 400 years. 'How can I relate to these people when I see them', I wondered. How will they accept us? Some Americans coming to climb the magnificent bulk of the mountain that they grew up with; that their parents had grown up with? and their grandparents, before that. This magnificent rampart of ice and snow defined their life's perimeter. Not one of them could penetrate this wall of majestic seracs and fluted ice towers. Just as I, a little kid growing up outside New York City, knew that the interstate highways around my home defined the extent of my
neighborhood sojourns, these children accepted the boundaries of the mighty peaks that surrounded their lake. Only the valley northwards, and two high mountain passes, offered access to the outside world. And of these, one could count on several days travel to reach a road. How would they accept our little group of 7 moving into their neighborhood with the most modern portable assemblage of luxury living materials ever created by man; With our enormous supply of vegetables, canned delicacies, and fresh produce? This would remain to be seen. Yet the time table was set. We were about to find out.
The powerful snow plumes that blew north off the summit of our mountain were brutal, beautiful, and frightening. For days at time, we would never know the peak without it encompassed in storm. Then, with sweet thanks to the high mountain Gods, a lull between storms would allow a diminishing snowfall to open the skies. For a precious hour or two, the peak would unveil itself. In an afternoon's clearing, the sun's orange setting light spread a glowing mantel across the entire bulk of Sepu Kangri's northwestern flanks. In these moments I would stare at the bulk of this enormous mountain. Through my brain would emerge the questions of a trained mind: What were her weaknesses? How could we best use them to our advantage? What were the intervals between storms? Which aspects of which slopes would slide first? When would the next snowfall begin? Where would our team be safe? Where would we be most exposed? How much time did we have before winter? Could we execute the plan in the time we had? In sum, how should we proceed?
Mark Newcomb, 35 years old, was the visionary behind our attempt to make the first ascent of Sepu Kangri. (22,821ft - 6956 m) Not strictly renowned for only one mountain skill, but fabulous at all of them, Mark was most widely recognized as an extreme skier and mountain guide from the state of Wyoming. He had been approached by the American outdoor clothing and equipment manufacturer, Marmot Mountain Ltd, to put together a mountain adventure based around skis. In Mark's mind, to scale a peak with the help of skis made perfect sense. He'd been doing it all his life. Yet this was to be an 'adventure', not strictly a mountain climbing expedition. The were to be on the team a variety of members with diverse backgrounds, definitely not just those experienced in high altitude mountaineering. The purpose of this varied team, so I was informed, was to appeal to a broader audience when the story was told. There was another serious objective of our trip related to this: the adventure was to bring home the makings of a multi media web page, the content of a movie, testing results enough to satisfy the eager minds of the designers and engineers of our gear, and enough still photography to keep the marketing guys at Marmot and W.L. Gore and Associates happy for several years.
To begin with, Mark invited his wife of only a few months, Carina Ostberg. Among other attributes, this determined 26 year old woman was a serious Nordic Ski athlete from Sweden. She had moved to the USA several years before and met Mark while training with the US Nordic Ski team. With the inclusion of a married couple, our endorsers felt that the story would take an interesting twist from the beginning.
In keeping with the nature of the skiing objective, the next members were chosen for their skiing agility, as well as their ability to capture the adventure on film and video. Ace Kvale, 46 years old, was a well known mountaineer and photographer. Living in a cabin at 10,000 ft (3050 m) in the splendid San Juan mountains of SW Colorado, for half the year Ace was in daily contact with skiing and snow. His life had been one amazing journey after another into the most challenging mountain environments on earth. Carrying the camera gear only a few could find the strength for, Ace had a knack for bringing back unbelievable images.
The requirement to bring home this extensive imagery was something I had been only partially dedicated to in my climbing trips of the past. This Sepu trip was to define a new level of media coverage for me. We were to return with extensive media content: Photographs, video, writings, interviews, and commentary. Fortunately for us, none of this media hype was to be made public until we returned home from the mountain. Thus, thankfully, the requirement of a satellite telephone was eliminated. I prayed that the real embarrassing stuff I did or said would fall by way side or be edited out before anything was finally made public.
Ace was invited to ask his romantic partner to join the team. Kate Clayton, 43, was a blacksmith from Telluride, CO. Skilled at the use of a hammer, she was also a prolific rock climber and skier. Nonetheless, like Carina, her high altitude skills were limited. Neither had been an alpinist, and thus both bore the burden of having to function in a mountain setting with a background of related, but not immediately applicable, skills. Yes, this was going to be interesting...
Frank Pickell was an ex- team member of the Professional K2 Ski Athletes. At 28 years of age, he had relinquished his mental grip on fabulous ski descents on 3 continents, and had traded it for a full time job at the Boulder, Colorado multi media company, Texture Media. Frank was to have the job of videographer. As a professional alpine ski athlete, he indeed knew his body, the snow, and the slopes it lay on. However, he also was lacking in the skills and experience of high mountain ascents.
I was in there next. With 47 years of age creeping through my bones, they needed some old beacon from the past to comment occasionally on the size, weight, and scope of what we were hoping to achieve. As this would be my twenty-fifth trip to Asia to attempt a mountain. Coupled with the fact that I was known for my incessant dialog, they probably figured I would have something to say for the camera.
Our last member was a young renaissance man of 35 who lived in Moab, Utah. An 'executive' in a small, highly specialized, outdoor clothing company called Jagged Edge Mountain Gear, Jordan Campbell was way too well organized, and tired of being cooped up in an office. He was a friend of Ace Kvale's and certainly a man of talent in the world of telemark skiing. Among his skills was the ability to take splendid photographs and, almost as importantly, get along with just about anyone, anywhere, on climbing adventures far and wide.
Thus, the nature of our team was sown with a hint of unpredictability insofar as a big mountain ascent was concerned. Yet true to our sponsors goals, that we would have an interesting trip, and capture it all on film, was absolutely certain.
We arrived into Lhasa on 6 September, 2002, on a flight from Chengdu. What a change since I first saw quiet little Lhasa in 1983! Today, bustling streets full of people in business suits, phone booths packed with families of Tibetans in traditional costume, cars careening through tight passage ways not made to handle their size, fancy cosmetics sold by pretty girls in modern department stores to Chinese newcomers trying to save their skin from the sun's evil rays. It was too much at first. I couldn't accept the cataclysmic changes. The Potala Palace had become to Lhasa what Disneyland is to San Diego, the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, or the Sagrada Familia is to Barcelona: a tourist attraction engulfed in a modern city. It is a tribute to the Tibetans that any semblance of recognition can still be seen in Lhasa of a once powerful and graceful religion known as Tibetan Buddhism.
Our modern city enabled us to put together an expedition kitchen not so different from what we would organize in Alaska. There were some unfamiliar squirmy things in the covered food markets of Lhasa, but generally the assortment of products was enormous and fresh. It was only a matter of 8 hours before our shopping was complete, packed up, sealed, and delivered to our four star hotel. How simple it is with the modern Chinese mandate.
On 9-11 September, two modern Toyota SUV's and a large Chinese truck transport our team and our gear for three days across continuously worsening roads into the heart of Eastern Tibet. This grinding, bumpy, bone bruising drive is the yardstick by which we measure our entry into an almost lost Tibetan culture; a time machine of distance from Chinese influence which takes us backwards through the events of the past fifty years. By the end of the third day, we are somewhat outside of the immediate influence of the Chinese who have overrun Lhasa. We have passed through the towns of Nakchu, Diru, and Khinda and have taken a '4 wheel drive only' track into the heart of the Nyanchen Tangla range to Samda, about 14,000 ft (4270 m) above sea level. Being immersed in these mountains so far from Lhasa is both good and bad as far as our expedition is concerned. We are now on Tibetan time, and this means waiting. Two days go by while Yaks are brought into the Samda valley for transporting our gear to our base camp on Sam Tso Taring. But these are our first days to be physically active at altitude. We enjoy ourselves immensely, hiking the strikingly green mountain slopes around us for upwards of 900 m. Our liason officer forbids us to visit the intriguing ancient Bon monastery in plain sight of our camping spot. Why? We don't really know. Is it the Chinese or the locals that have a problem with our inquisitiveness? Here we don't wish to offend anyone, and we leave the monastery alone.
A rather enjoyable 6 hour hike brings us to the exact spot, at about 15,500 ft (4725 m), that Bonington's team has used on his two previous attempts to scale Sepu Kangri. We are within shouting distance from the four family homes we now recognize from photographs in Bonington's and Clarke's well written book, Tibet's Secret Mountain, The Triumph of Sepu Kangri. Somewhat shy at first, these people are warm hearted and friendly. It's been four years since they've seen a westerner here, and not much appears to have changed. The children are growing up, their parents are older. But Bonington's group has left a terrific legacy; these people clearly have a positive attitude towards their new visitors from abroad. Within a few days of our arrival, we are invited for tea, chapattis, and a most delicious cup of thick, fresh yogurt with sugar. At first we are weary of this completely raw food served out of hand hewed wooden buckets. Dried milk crust and Yak hairs are unappetizingly pasted on the bucket's rim. But within a few days, we let our defenses relax. We crave more of this fabulous local dairy product. Soon we have set up a good bartering system which supplies us with an ample daily serving of this fresh, creamy yogurt. Of course, we keep the antibiotic Ciprofloxcacin close at hand.
Not far above base camp, snow and ice define the world of Sepu Kangri's magnificent walls and mighty glaciers. We can see immediately how the storms behave in our area. They leave no doubt as to where the moisture driving these glaciers evolves from. We have Bonington's two previous expeditions of logistics and exploration to go by as we plan our attack. What we must do is thread the needle between these continual storms. We must successfully link together a series of days that will allow us to reach a high camp at 21,000 ft (6400 m), acclimatized and ready to make a leap for the summit. We must be willing to tolerate, at least to some degree, the severe conditions Sepu is certain to throw at us on that theoretical day we're ready to go for the top. Yet only the lower half of our route is visible from our side of the peak. We must rely on our 'reference book' for views of what the upper Thong Wuk glacier will look like, and what we can expect to encounter on the final 2000 foot (600 m) summit block.
On 18 September, we establish a camp at about 17,700 ft (5400 m) on the ridge where the British have obviously toiled to build tent platforms. Ah, the luxury of coming along after the work has been done. With the help of 4 locals who are eager for a wage, all seven of us move up to our perch for an extended foray above. I am weak from some illness that must be coming from the Yogurt, but I try to look beyond this inconvenience and deal with the mountain. We have brought up our ski touring boots, skis and skins, and the gear we'll need above. As alpine touring skis will be employed between a point where the fixed ropes end at 18,800 ft (5730 m), and the highest camp at 20,600 ft (6280 m), we elect to use our Dynafit touring boots for the entire climb above camp 1 to the summit. I am not sure how warm my previously frostbitten toes will be. But to carry a familiar mountaineering boot in addition to the Dynafits is out of the question. We know we don't have a lot of opportunities to sneak between these weather windows. Any serious attempt on the summit that gets shut down by a storm will cost us a minimum of a week. With full winter cold arriving around the middle of October, I am constantly calculating the time we have left.
Luckily for us, the snow conditions are reasonable. Mark, Carina, and I manage to fix 200 ft (60 m) of rope up a steep corner formed of serac ice on the left and rock on the right. This tricky access to the so called Fotheringham's Ridge, discovered by Bonington's team on their second attempt, gives a clever solution of how to reach the upper Thong Wuk glacier. The next day, all seven climb back to this point with skis on our rucksacks. From here, we don our skis and for 40 minutes cut across some unnerving side slopes above ice cliffs until reaching the 19,200 foot (5860 m) crest of this ridge just before it drops down 300 ft (90 m) and joins the upper Thong Wuk glacier.
But we have run out of good weather for now. The sky appears as dark as a haunted Halloween night and huge storm clouds swoosh towards us from the South. The blasts of wind coming at us is a grave reminder of what the summit could be like in the event of a turn for worse in the weather on that hypothetical day. We seven dump our loads on this crest at 19,200 ft (5860 m) and bury it in snow as best we can. Our skis take us quickly back to the top of the fixed rope and we leave them there for the next excursion up onto the mountain. In haste, we descend that day to BC and the warmth of our large, igloo type tent. It isn't just the delicious Chinese food that makes us eager to return to base camp. Our library of books represents more reading than I've been able to do in the past ten years! It is a good thing, as well. For the next six days we wait for this storm cycle to end.
On 29 September five of us make the climb back up to camp 1. Mark and Carina have gone up 2 days earlier but there has been no real break in the weather until today. The snow is now quite deep and slows us significantly. Can we go all the way to the top on our second reconnaissance up the mountain? This is the thought that gathers popularity as we proceed. On 30 September, we carry our gear and food to the little cache we have buried on the ridge crest. Skiing down to where our ridge links with the upper Thong Wuk, we place our tents below a 40 foot (12 m) serac, in snow bowl 50 feet (15 m) across and out of the wind. All seven of us feel strong and healthy. But soon the mountain begins taking its toll.
During the afternoon, while others are organizing the camp, Mark and I ski up into the icefall we must find a way through. This barrier is an unknown for us and gives me great concern. Aware that this obstacle is difficult to calculate from below, we test its defenses repeatedly but are always stopped by crevasses. In the late afternoon we make an end run completely around to the right of the icefall and find a way through to 20,100 ft (6130 m). It is here that we can finally see the top 2000 ft (600 m) of Sepu. When I return to our camp 1 am both tired and hungry. Our moral is high, however. We report to the others that we can move up the following day, get through the icefall, and probably reach the high camp, if the weather cooperates. Our first glimpse of the summit block was enlightening. Although the snow and serac ice blobs don't resemble the photographs in Bonington's book, this last 2000 ft (600 m) rise is, none the less, climbable. Happily for me, Mark announces that it is probably not a good ski from the top. I am relieved when I hear this from Mark. I really don't know what is possible in the world of extreme skiing but I'm not eager to find out. Call me old fashioned, but the points of my crampons sound more secure than the metal edges of my skis.
In the night of the 30th, Carina fell sick. There's no telling what ails her specifically. It could have been food, or a stomach virus resurfacing that she had earlier in Diru. Nevertheless, she has a terrible night. By morning she is dehydrated and depleted. Mark's concern for her is understandable and he plans to descend with Carina to camp 1. The problem is this option leaves me pondering the riddle of the final climb. Only I, of all the folks, have summited a peak as high as Sepu. Mark is an outstanding climber with plenty of Himalayan experience above 7000 m. Ace, though also a Himalayan veteran, has his hands full with taking photographs. Jordan also has some high altitude experience, but has been out of the game for several years. Though our team is strong today, I am a little concerned about losing one of our corner stone members. Our ensuing discussion vacillates between leaving Carina in camp 2, taking her up to camp 3, only 1000 ft (300 m) higher, or letting her descend alone to camp 1 and waiting for us there. Finally Mark agrees to take Carina to the fixed rope, remain in contact with her via walkie talkie, and return to catch up with us as we ski up towards camp 3. This plan is workable and by noon we are setting off.
The weather is holding as we cover the distance to the western cwm at 21,000 ft (6400 m). What a blessing these skis are! We cover terrain quickly that would take hours in boots, slogging through the knee deep snow. Mark catches up with us as we cross one last enormous snow bridge and stop for lunch. The sky is not clear off to the northwest. Not even a little. Though it has been a good morning, the dark, heavy clouds are scary to see. Are they going around Sepu? It seems a bit unlikely. But we still have open visibility on the glacier, even though these gray, threatening clouds fill the sky behind us. I methodically stab our little wands into the snow every 300 ft (90 m) or so. What fools we are not to bring a GPS unit on this expedition! I swear 'never again' to forget such an item.
By late afternoon we reach the snowy walls of our final cirque. Huge piles of avalanche debris are scattered across the glacier beneath the face of this last summit cone of snow and ice. Staying to the right of the cwm, and as near to the ridge on our right as we dare, we pitch our two small tents at 20,700 ft (6310 m) and prepare meals for the evening. Mark elects to dig a snow cave in the slopes leading to the ridge 300 ft (90 m) off to the right. We others are content for one night in tents, and hope that our strength will suffice for the summit bid in 8 hours.
By nightfall, we have a problem and a blessing. Ace has become sick from the altitude and is nestled in his sleeping bag. Kate coaxes him sip after sip of water to replenish his body's hydration. It is all too apparent that he'll not be well at dawn. On the other hand, the skies over Sepu have cleared and the stars twinkle vibrantly. We watch closely to monitor Ace's condition, for here there is no descent but to reverse the long route we have skied. It is with a sober mood that I snuggle deeply into my sleeping bag in hopes that the cloudy skies will not return soon.
Our agreement with Mark is to be ready by five. At 2 a.m. we are already lighting the stove. I haven't slept a wink. I'm groggy and still tired. What is it with these mountains? I have been ramped up all night for the climb in front of us, and my mind is occupied by the constant weighing of alternatives. In the night we learn from the other tent that, while Ace is feeling slightly better, Kate's feet are not warming up. She has not been able to keep her feet warm since camp 2 and is concerned for her toes. I hand a cup of hot cocoa to Frank and proceed to melt snow. First we have bottles to fill, and then more drinks, followed by some pasty, oat-gagging meal. Frank however, is not finishing his cocoa. That is a bad sign. Maybe we have come up to fast. Jordan, on the other hand, is feeling pretty good. By five thirty the three of us, Mark, Jordan and I, set off up the avalanche-prone slopes towards the ridge on our right. We ascend the debris of huge slides and are relieved that these slopes have already released. Still, the crown fractures we are seeing with our headlamps are a source of uneasiness for me.
We kick steps up easy slopes for about 600 ft (180 m) to where the wind now comes at us, unobstructed, from the south side of this west trending ridge. Jordan is concerned about what lies above. Knowing that a third man will slow us down in the event we decide to belay, he feels he should turn around. We know he can make it to Sepu's summit. But the descent gives him doubt, especially if the weather changes during the morning. It is this possible condition that finally causes him to stay behind. The cold is fiercer than I had expected and Jordan leaves me his insulated over pants. These are a godsent in the frigid night. Mark and I continue up in the dark while Jordan sits down on the slopes to wait for the amazing sun rise sure to come soon. We weave in and around the seracs and walls of snow that form barriers to our upward progress. We trend leftwards, soloing up an exposed , 55 degree slope which hangs over the west face. Our sunrise is indeed spectacular. Rays of morning light gently caress the mountain summits to the north of us. I take out my little camera and snap some photos. Mark has become the videographer today, and sweeps the horizon with our small digital video camera, speaking into the microphone and recording the unforgettable moment.
We crampon up the steep bed of another huge slide path. Above us now, and crossing the entire slope, looms a giant vertical crown fracture about 8 to10 ft high. We will need to get over and above it. It is a split level fracture: 2 separate 4 foot thick slabs stacked one on top of the other and tilted at about 30 degrees towards us. A car size block of this lower snow slab has pulled partially out from beneath the upper slab and then wedged in place just before cutting lose down the slope. Like a domino almost pulled out from underneath a book on an inclined table, this mega block of snow is lodged in place above and to my right. It gives me the creeps. We front point up the 40 degree slope beneath this behemoth of a crown, 'knowing' that it could not slide again until the next significant snowfall. Mark bravely mantles onto the first layer and traverses leftwards to where he can just pull over the second, steeply inclined crown. I ask for the rope on this exposed maneuver. I don't want to blow it here. The sky is white now; cloud has quickly engulfed the area around Sepu's summit.
A traverse 300 ft (90 m) farther left and we are trying to see through the now heavily falling snow. It is unbelievable how quickly this weather changes! It is 9 a.m. and a steeply guarded ridge above us runs on to the left. We don't know where it ends, or if it eventually peters out. We do know we must climb above this 20-40 foot vertical wall of snow to gain what has to be the summit ridge. But it shows little sign of weakness from our slope beneath it. The wind is picking up now and the snow swirls past our heads. A blizzard has moved into the Sepu Kangri massif. I feel the frustration that Bonington's teammates must have felt when they were turned back just 500 ft (150 m) shy of their objective in 1998.
We double back to a slightly overhanging corner in the snowy wall and climb up a steep, 50 ft (15 m) slope until we're beneath the short but vertical corner. I twist in a screw and drop my lower body into the crevasse between the steep slope and the serac wall. Mark takes both our short axes and drives in his tools lengthwise over his head. Pulling up on the tools, his boots scrape away wind crusted snow feathers many inches thick. But there is no purchase He comes back down, cursing his position, but more determined than ever. Up he goes again, this time hauling himself a body length upwards as he claws the snow with the shafts of the two axes. In a few minutes the rope is fixed to him. He is simply sitting on the other side of the sharp snow ridge. I ascend the rope and join him on the crest. Wind sweeps across the ridge and our visibility is about 60 ft (20 m) now, but our direction is clear enough. We follow the easy ridge upwards about 150 ft until it merges with some broad, open snowfields. This is quite scary terrain in these conditions, for our rapidly filling foot tracks, and the compass on my wrist computer are our only guides for the return trip. The wind whips the snow past us, from southwest to northeast. After another 300 ft (90 m) of slightly inclined slope, Mark stops and waits for me. There is no more 'upwards'. The snowslope begins to drop off to the north. Are we on the summit? Who knows up here? We brace ourselves in the wind and try to look around. Slopes appear to be dropping off, but we are hesitant to go poking around. Then a slight clearing, from the clouds rushing by, gives us a glimpse of the shadowy drop off in front of us. It is 10 a.m. and we are indeed on the summit. Some more video is in order and I snap some photos with my little Yashica. Mark takes out the radio and calls Carina down in camp 1. Yes, we are on the summit, he explains. No, we can't see a thing. Yes, we'll be down by evening, with any luck, all the way to camp 1.
The others in camp three don't have a radio. They are worried sick about our descent in this storm. Their tents are creasing heavily in the winds and snow is accumulating rapidly. Mark and I don't hang around long. It's our rapidly filling foot prints that will lead us off this summit snowfield and back to the west ridge. We quickly retrace our steps to the ridge and descend to the steep wall we've come up. Burying a small stuff sack filled with snow, we rappel the short step down the side of the ridge. Now we try to retrace every step that we've made.
It's four hours before we reach the camp. We get lost several times, then eventually find our way. The rope comes out as I front point down the exposed 55 degree slope and nearly step off the ice cliff in the whiteout. When we reach our tents, the four others are wasting no time. They want to descend right away. I am tired and sleepy. I just want to crawl inside the tent; drink, and sleep. But there's not going to be time for that. I get a half hour's respite from the wind and snow and begin packing up with the others. Ace is feeling better, as is Frank, who's slept all day. We start skiing down our mile long, winding glacier, just barely able see from one fluttering orange tape to the next. My legs are quite shaky, and my pack seems much heavier than when we came up. But our skis are perfect for this sort of terrain. In an hour we are gliding around the giant crevasses. In two hours we are back in camp 2, where we've left a tent and supplies. The snow blizzard is weakening towards late afternoon. We drink some fluid here and set off ,one by one, towards the top of the fixed ropes. Some of the team are planning to come back up for another attempt on some of the other summits up here so we leave one good tent. But I'm not sure I'll feel like coming back up. I'm only thinking of 'downwards' right now.
By nightfall we reach the tents of camp 1. Carina is very glad to see us. She's had no word from us since the summit radio call. My body needs a rest, and I lay down in our tent, exhausted and dehydrated. Jordan throws a pot of snow on the stove and a sense of accomplishment begins to glide over me. I know I'll sleep soundly tonight.
The first ascent of Sepu Kangri, 22,821 ft. (6956 m) by an American team on 2 October 2002.