Chomolhari : One Perfect Day

Julie-Ann Clyma and Roger Payne

Chomolhari (7326 m) in Yadong County, Tibet was first climbed in 1937 by Englishman Freddy Spencer Chapman and Sherpa Pasang Dawa Lama. Starting as a team of five they set off from Gangtok in Sikkim and in seven days walked to Phari on the plains of Tibet from where they carried out a reconnaissance of the south ridge. Finding this impassable they spent another four days making a detour into Bhutan, and then continued on directly to make an alpine-style ascent of the mountain in just seven more days. The original line of ascent followed the broad southeast spur, merging in the last few hundred metres with the south ridge.

It was not until 1970 that the mountain received its second ascent, via the same route but starting in Bhutan, by a joint Bhutan-Indian military expedition. The third ascent was made in 1996 by a joint Japan-China expedition from the Tibetan side. They climbed via the south col and then followed the south ridge to join the original route below the sharp crest of the summit ridge. The lack of activity on this notable summit is because of access restrictions on the Bhutanese side, and the difficulty of access into Yadong County on the Tibetan side.

We first sought permission for an expedition to the northwest ridge of Chomolhari in 2002. A peak permit was granted by the Chinese Mountaineering Association in 2003, but at the last minute it was not possible to get the military permit to enter Yadong County. One year later permission for the expedition was granted with the able assistance of Bikrum Pandey and Himalaya Expeditions in Nepal working with the China Tibet Mountaineering Association in Lhasa. Based on weather records and our experience of climbing in the east of Tibet in the previous year, it was decided to attempt the mountain in the spring when temperatures would be warmer, there would be more sun on the northwest ridge, and the winds (in theory) not so strong. We arrived in Lhasa on 6 April 2004 and spent three days there, meeting with CTMA staff, buying provisions, sight-seeing, and waiting for local travel permits.

From Lhasa we travelled with Dawa Tsering, our liaison officer by Land Cruiser to Gyantse (3950 m) on 9 April. The route crossed the Kamba la (4794 m), contoured around the massive Yamdrok tso, and then crossed the Karo la (5045 m) before dropping down to Gyantse. Much of the road was under construction, and the journey took 9 hours. At Gyantse we met up with our cook Pemba who had travelled overland from Nepal, and the following day the whole team continued on to base camp. On the map the distance from Gyantse to Chomolhari looked almost as long as the distance from Lhasa to Gyantse, but the time taken was much shorter (5 hours). From Gyantse it was only one hour to the town of Kangma (4175 m), soon after which we passed through an army checkpoint without problems. The route continued past the small town of Gala to the Gala tso from where we had our first sight of Chomolhari. After a photo stop we continued to the village of Tuna, finally turning off the highway near a road worker's shelter, about 2 kilometres before the Tang la (c. 4760 m). Exactly 100 years earlier this was the route taken by Francis Younghusband during the 'Lhasa mission'.

From the highway there was a faint dirt track running across the plateau which led in a couple of kilometres to directly beneath Chomolhari. Barring access to the mountain was a band of foothills cut by a number of deep valleys. It appeared that these valleys would allow us to explore the north, west and southern approaches to the mountain, and so base camp was sited at c. 4400 m under the west face. An hour or so was spent trying to find a suitable spot on the open plateau for the base camp tents. The most important factor was water — there were a few stagnant pools which the cook discounted, but eventually after consulting with a local shepherd we found a small running stream. Unfortunately this was far from any shelter (there were a number of rock outcrops and old walled enclosures in the area) and being in the open we were at the mercy of the wind. This blew continuously every day and night, making it difficult to rest. The kitchen tent had to be lashed down with ropes, and everything was covered in dust and sand. The only consolation was that being on such an open site, we could be in direct sunlight from 08:00 until 20:00.

Despite the comfort, excellent cooking and friendly company at base camp the strong wind was a strong incentive to go exploring. The first reconnaissance was made directly above base camp in a valley leading towards the west face of Chomolhari on 11 April. Easy walking up the scrub-covered hillsides led in 3 hours to a small hanging valley with a lake at c. 5275 m. The upper section of the northwest ridge was visible, but not the start of the route, which lay a long way further on. We descended back to base camp that afternoon, but then returned to the valley on the 13th with food for two nights. Beyond the first lake there are a series of smaller lakes, and we camped beside one of these at c. 5325 m.

Chomolhari from northwest.

16. Chomolhari from northwest. (Roger Payne)

On the 14th we continued up the right side of the glacier (left bank) on boulders and rock slabs, until we could contour around the top of the glacier on rubble covered ice. It was possible to do all this in trekking boots, without any technical equipment. The west face is directly above the glacier basin and is an imposing rock wall, but any routes are threatened by the large, continuous band of ice cliffs that girdle the top third of the wall. On the right side of the face a ridge descends through the serac band, and this would offer a feasible and difficult route to the summit.

On the left side of the face is the northwest ridge, and from our vantage point a line of open gullies appeared to allow access onto the ridge at a distinctive boss of ice. Closer inspection revealed that it was a series of stepped rock chimneys with a lot of very loose rock. It may be at times this line is a snow and ice couloir. The afternoon was spent exploring possible starts to the line, and the conclusion was that it would probably go, but it definitely wouldn't be fun climbing the various wet and verglassed chock-stones; and knocking rocks off would be inevitable. Snow showers came in during the late afternoon and we headed back to base camp.

Hoping that there might be more amenable access on the other side of the northwest ridge, we set out to explore the northern aspect of the mountain on 16 April. A long, rising traverse across the plateau took us in two hours to a ridge overlooking a major stream-bed and with views onto a small settlement. A local shepherd told us that the village was called Lhague, and that the stream led up to a holy lake called Chomo Lharang, which many pilgrims visit in the summer months. We crossed over the stream to follow the grassy ridge on the far side, and were rewarded with views of the enormous still frozen lake at c. 5100 m, which fills the basin beneath the north face. We continued higher to a camp in a small hanging valley at c. 5300 m. There was no running water, but patches of old snow provided enough to drink. During the afternoon we scrambled along a long rock ridge which pushes deep into the glacier under the north face to reach an altitude of c. 5700 m. From here we had a great vantage point onto the north face and the northwest ridge.

The face drops directly below the summit as a huge, slabby, granite wall covered in smears of ice. To the left are two spurs exiting onto the north ridge - either would give hard mixed climbs, but both have approaches threatened by seracs. One striking line is a huge ice couloir dropping from the summit beside the first spur. This is highly polished though, due to it being a major drainage line for spindrift whenever snow starts to fall. On the main face there are no obvious natural lines, but it is conceivable that the various ice smears and slabs could be linked together. Further left again and below the north ridge, the face is pure ice with many seracs, and any climbing there looked to be a combination of tedium and extreme danger.

Turning to the northwest ridge, our hopes of gaining the ice boss which we had seen from the other side were dashed. Access to the boss was a steep hanging glacier covered in more impassable seracs. Scanning the bottom of the ridge through binoculars though, a small fan of snow could be seen at the base of the wall. Above was a slanting rock rib which led to a snow basin that in turn led onto the northwest ridge. It seemed that there might be a hidden couloir that would give us access. Scrambling further up the ridge we were able to see into the bottom half of the couloir which appeared to be good ice - but the middle section was blocked from view. We were encouraged though that this looked much more feasible and appealing than the approach from the west side. Over the next two days we tried to climb a small peak (marked 5900 m on the map) for acclimatisation, but we were stopped by persistent snowfall and eventually returned to base camp on 19 April.

Having spent a long time looking at the northwest ridge from different vantage points (and assuming we could get onto it) it was clear that the crux of the route would be climbing a series of rock buttresses between 6500 m and the summit. Once on this ground there looked to be little chance of using a tent, and open bivouacs seemed likely. We estimated that the ridge would be likely to take 5-7 days to climb, and then there was a question of descent. It would be possible but difficult to abseil back down the line of ascent, but an appealing alternative was to do a traverse of the mountain and descend by the south ridge which had been climbed in 1996. From a very brief description of this route by the Japan-China team, there was obviously a significant barrier in the form of an icefall near the start of the route. Having seen the ice conditions on the rest of the mountain we decided to go around to the south side to look at the descent and check whether the icefall was still passable.

We left base camp on 22 April and in three hours reached the valley where the Japan-China team had placed their base camp. We continued upward on moraine, and contoured around the left side of another enormous, frozen lake to reach the edge of the glacier and a camp at c. 5150 m. The day had been cloudy and cold, and as we set up camp it started to snow. The snowfall continued all night and through the next day, but we continued up the glacier until we were in view of the icefall. This was about 200 m high, steep and very broken, and with very large seracs to either side. It was impossible to see a way through from our vantage point, but what was obvious was the threat posed by the huge seracs on both sides of the icefall. Not wanting to proceed in such poor conditions and visibility we camped at c. 5300 m, hoping for a better view the next day. Unfortunately the bad weather continued, so we left a small amount of food, and then returned to base camp on 24 April.

Upper part of south ridge of Chomolahri.

11. Upper part of south ridge of Chomolahri. (Roger Payne)

Chomolahri from west.

12. Chomolahri from west. (Roger Payne)

Chomolahri group from northwest.

13. Chomolahri group from northwest.. (Roger Payne)

Having looked at all the options we decided to try and gain the northwest ridge from the north side, and set out from base camp on 27 April. It wasn't an auspicious start as there had been snowfall overnight and the day remained cloudy and cold with the odd snow flurry. We camped beside the holy lake at c. 5100 m and hoped for an improvement. The following day we had a late start first drying out the tent and sleeping bags, and then set off at mid-day to traverse around the right side of the lake. We were surprised to find a good trail, presumably from the many pilgrims who visit the area. From the lake we then struck up a grassy ramp running under a rock wall, which took us easily into the moraine at the edge of the glacier. The first section of the glacier was straightforward, but by 5 p.m. we had reached a very broken section, and with the sun now beating down we decided to stop and camp at c. 5430 m.

The next morning we had expected to be starting the couloir, but waking at 4 a.m. we had more snow and no visibility, so went back to sleep. The bad weather continued, so we decided to just finish the route across the glacier and then camped again right beneath the couloir. In the odd clearing and between spindrift avalanches we could see good neve leading into the first part of the couloir, although this seemed to run out into huge rock walls at the top.

The next day (30 April) dawned clear and cold. We set off moving together in the first part of the couloir for around three rope lengths. Following that we pitched another four rope lengths on good snow and ice, with occasional rock runners in the side walls. We were completely sheltered in the couloir, but strong winds were evidently blowing up high, as we could see great plumes of spindrift streaming off the ridge high above, and periodically great cascades would pour down the side walls and into the gully. At this point the couloir petered out, and we were forced to traverse rightwards onto a mixed buttress. Two awkward pitches took us around the nose of the buttress, but then to our great relief we could see the route to the crest of the northwest ridge. Two more excellent pitches on easy mixed ground led to a shallow snow spur dropping from the ridge. This was the perfect campsite (c. 5900 m) — flat enough to dig a platform for the tent, and completely sheltered from the prevailing wind. Feeling really pleased with our route finding, and amazed at the good climbing conditions we settled in for the night.

The 1st of May dawned clear and sunny, and our campsite was quite calm. Unfortunately though, strong winds were still very evident above. We climbed onto the ridge and immediately felt its full force. From 6000 m to around 6500 m the ridge is a gradually steepening ice crest. The climbing initially was straightforward, but the ropes blew in a great arc and it was almost impossible to stay upright in the gusts. While the wind speed was strong at our altitude, it was clearly even stronger above. Faced with difficult climbing above, and the likelihood of an open bivouac, it didn't seem wise to continue in the strong winds. After only a hundred metres, we made the decision to return to our campsite. We woke on the 2nd to another perfectly clear day, but the same strong winds. Technical climbing on the ridge would simply be impossible with the high winds so there was no point trying to go up. We had already lost time to bad weather and sitting out another day would mean that we were past the point of having enough food and fuel to complete the climb. Feeling very despondent we abseiled back down the buttress and returned to base camp arriving just before sunset.

Taking a rest day at base camp we considered our options. With only five days left we didn't have enough time for another attempt on the northwest ridge, and anyway the winds continued to roar up high and at the base camp. However, the sun continued to shine, and finding it impossible to sit at base camp to wait for the jeeps to arrive, we decided to try another quick foray to the south side of the mountain and a closer look at the icefall and seracs below the south ridge.

On the 4th we retraced our steps back to the glacier under the icefall. On the 5th we spent a fraught morning working our way up the centre of the icefall which involved various athletic manoeuvres to overcome obstacles. Finally we were forced out to the left to make a quick dash up the slopes under the smaller serac barrier. This then led to long but easy slopes to the south col at around 5800 m (the Japan-China sketch map shows this as 6000 m). Our luck was no better here though, as the snow started to fall at 4 p.m. and a ferocious storm blew up in the night. In the early hours of the 6th we abandoned attempts to sleep and got fully dressed fearing that the tent could not withstand the constant battering. It did though, and a long, tedious day was spent until the storm abated in the late afternoon.

By now we were resigned to descend the next morning to arrive at base camp just before the transport. But by midnight a much-needed miracle had taken place — the wind had dropped to a gentle breeze, the skies had cleared, and the full moon was up illuminating our side of the mountain. This was not just our last chance for the summit, but our last chance to do anything. We set off at 1:30 a.m. on the 7th. The serac band above the col was the first obstacle, but having found a way through that, the route up the south ridge was obvious.

Moving together we covered ground quickly. It was bitterly cold, and some large sections on the lower slopes were hollow windslab that echoed scarily under our feet. By sunrise though we were on safer ground, and the ridge continued to narrow to a most spectacular knife-edge. Looking down into Bhutan we could clearly see the line of the first ascent up a broad southeast spur. The knife-edge ran out into final gentler slopes to the summit, where a 45 minute rest was taken before reaching the top at 11:50 a.m. In contrast to all the other days on the expedition, it was totally calm.

We spent half an hour on the top taking photos of peaks in Bhutan, Sikkim and Tibet, and left a small tribute with a prayer flag to honour Buddhist faith and appease the mountain gods. Descending, we took an easier line in the upper section, following a large glacial shelf. We then picked up our tracks in the lower section to go back through the serac barrier and down to the south col, which we reached at 5 p.m. Having been up and down the south ridge we now realised that our plan to make an on-sight descent after attempting the northwest ridge was extremely optimistic. Finding the route down to the south col was complex and not at all obvious, and we would have been likely to have descended too low on the Bhutan side. The following morning (8 May) we left the south col at 5 a.m., made a nerve-wracking descent bypassing most of the icefall by descending the large avalanche below the seracs, and arrived back at base camp at 10.30 a.m. just as the Land Cruisers arrived. Everything was quickly thrown into duffels for an immediate departure, and by early evening we found ourselves back in a hotel in Gyantse. The rapid transition in just over 24 hours from being on a summit at over 7000 m, to sitting in a restaurant drinking beer, was most bizarre.


An alpine-style ascent of Chomolhari (7326 m) by Julie-Ann Clyma and Roger Payne. They climbed the south ridge approached from the Chumbi valley on 7 May 2004. This was the 4th ascent of this peak.

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