Himalayan Journal vol.63
The Himalayan Journal

Publication year:

Harish Kapadia
  1. Kipling and Kim
    (Rasoul Sorkhabi)
    (Bill Aitken)
  3. The Himalaya and Himalayan Birds
    (Lavkumar Khacher)
  4. An Inquiry into ‘Fragile’ Himalaya
    (Rasoul Sorkhabi)
  6. Exploring the Neora Valley
    (Chinmoy Chakrabarti)
    (Krishnan Kutty)
  9. Kamet, 2006
    (AVM Apurba Kumar Bhattacharyya (Retd))
  10. AC 150
    (Dave Wynne-Jones)
  11. A Ringing Revolution
    (Harish Kapadia)
  12. Kajaqiao
    (Mick Fowler)
  13. Expedition Autumn 2006 to East Tibet
    (Tamotsu Nakamura)



The Mountain Above The Grassy Plain

The smartly turned out lady Chinese immigration officer at the Gongkar international airport, looked at me with a discerning eye. Then, as she flipped through the pages of my passport, she looked confused. In the passport, she saw a photograph of a clean shaven man, formally attired as a gentleman. In front of her stood this heavily bearded man, casually clad in jeans and a baggy T shirt. As she looked at me with a searching eye, I smiled ‘That’s me!’ I assured her, somewhat embarrassed by her deep gaze. She swiftly got up from her chair at the counter and with my passport in her hand, disappeared into a plush cubicle behind - perhaps seeking a second opinion on my dubious looks - but mercifully returned after a few minutes with a warm, gracious smile. As she handed over the passport to me, in some what broken English, she remarked, ‘I thought you were an Englishman’. I smiled and thanked her for the compliment (if it was one!) and moved on for the awaiting customs check. This was my introduction to Tibet in April 2005, as our team of Indian climbers knocked on the doors of the once forbidden city of Lhasa, en route to Shishapangma.

The Shishapangma massif lies in the Central Himalayan region (Lat 28º 21’ N Long 85º 47’E) of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), of the Peoples Republic of China. The mountain which is one of the 14 eight-thousanders of our planet rises sheer above the grassy plain of the great Tibetan plateau, to take shape as one of the most beautiful, mountains of the world. It is the only eight-thousander, which lies in, and is approached wholly from, Tibet.

Shishapangma standing 8012 m, lies 100 miles west and north west of Everest. The mountain in Chinese is called Xixabangma, It has also been referred to as His-hsia-peng Ma Feng. The Sanskrit name, or as the Nepalese call it is Gosainathan (Gosai means God and Nathan, abode). It is a mountain greatly revered by the Tibetans and Nepalese alike. According to Toni Hagen[1] Shisha means range and Pangma is a grassy plain or meadow. Another Tibetan name interestingly interprets it as the mountain of severe climate. Shishapangma was earlier known as Peak 23 by the Survey of India, in a series of triangulations carried out from 1846 to 1855. The massif lies to the north of the picturesque Langtang National Park of Nepal. The mountain, itself a beautiful sight, towers above the surrounding seven-thousand metre peaks and occupies an area of approximately 10 km x 12 km. The summit ridge is almost 2 km long, with the west, central and east summits perched on it. The mountain is approached from the south along the Nyanang Phu valley from Nyalam (4000 m). From the north the mountain can be approached either from the Yebakongal glacier or the Shishapangma glacier. To the north of Shishapangma, approx 2.5 km on the northeast ridge, lie the twin peaks of Yebakongal Ri (7365 m), which tower above the Shishapangma glacier to the west and Yebakongal glacier to the east. 2 km east of Shishapangma, stands the shapely Molemenqing or Phola Gangchen (7716 m).When seen from the grassy meadow in the north, Phola Gangchen appears to be a shapely spire! The west ridge from Shishapangma moves in a west and northwesterly direction to Risum and onward to Langtang Ri (7239 m) and Porong Ri (7292 m). The almost 8 km long southeast ridge of Shishapangma emanates and moves in a southeasterly manner, towering above the Nyanang Phu valley. Pungpa Ri (7445 m) and Ice Tooth (6200 m) are all located on the broken profile and continuation of this ridge. The main subsidiary peaks of the mountain are Porong Ri, Molemenqing and the Pungpa Ri. Across the Nyanang Phu valley, to southeast in Nepal lies the Jugal Himal, while to the south west is the Langtang Himal region. God’s country indeed !

Shishapangma was first sited by Major H.T. Moorshead and A.F.R. Wollaston, with the Survey of India team during the 1921 British Everest Reconnaissance expedition. In 1945, Peter Aufschnaiter and Heinrich Harrer, during their classic journey to Lhasa sketched a magnificent panorama of the Pungrong range with Gosainathan and Lapche Kang in the background.[2] Subsequently in 1950, Aufschnaiter after a reconnaissance from the east published a detailed map of the area in 1954.[3] In 1952 Toni Hagen, crossed a col from the upper Langtang glacier and viewed the Nyanang Phu valley and the great southwest face of Shishapangma. This col is now known as the ‘Hagen’s Col.’ In March and September 1961, Chinese carried out detailed reconnaissance of the mountain. In 1963 during their third reconnaissance of the mountain, the Chinese expedition reached 7160 m on the Yebakongal glacier. In 1964, reportedly some 200 mountaineers, scientists and support members arrived at the foot of Shishapangma, this time with the objective of climbing the mountain. The team was led by Hsu Ching and had nine members which included four Tibetans. The expedition established six camps and on 02 May at 1020 hours (Peking time) reached the summit of the last unclimbed 8000 m, mountain of the world. The second ascent came 16 years later when a German expedition (Dr Menfred- Strum) climbed the mountain in 1980. The mountain was subsequently climbed by Austrians (Dr Paul Alf Olmuller) in 1980, by Japanese Women (Junko Tabei),and Italians (Reinhold Messner) in 1981. In 1982, climbing in Alpine style a British team (Roger Baxter Jones, Alex MacIntyre and Doug Scott) made an outstanding ascent of the formidable south face, climbing from the Nyanang Phu glacier in three days and subsequently, descending from the southwest face. The team also climbed Pungpa Ri via the southwest couloir and southwest ridge in Alpine style.[4] In 1981, Molamenqing was climbed by a New Zealand team (Warwick Anderson). In 1983, in a German Swiss Expedition (Sigi Hupfauer), Lhotse veteran Fritz Luchsinger then 62, died of pulmonary oedema. This was the first recorded accident on the mountain. Today, apart from the original three pioneered routes, there are almost 14 variations to climb the mountain. The first winter ascent of the mountain was made on 14 January 2005, by, an Italian and a Polish climber (Simone Moro and Piotr Morawski). Today, the mountain is not as popular in terms of ascents or attempts as Everest or Cho Oyu with climbers or commercial expeditions, yet the mountain manages to draw a sizeable number of international climbers every year.

The Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) Uttarkashi, India selected Shishapangma as it’s objective for conducting refresher training for its instructional staff in 2005, which was also the 40th anniversary of the Institute. This small team comprised of the Principal, six instructors and a doctor, supported on the mountain by three young Sherpas.

The team flew to Lhasa on 16 April, after making final preparations in Kathmandu. The Air China flight, from Kathmandu to Lhasa was a spectacular one with aerial views of Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, Everest, Lhotse, Makalu and others. However, it was the unveiling of the great Tibetan Plateau with an average elevation of 5000 m that was the grand finale of this breath taking flight! The team spent three days sight seeing in Lhasa, which was a delight and carried out last minute coordination with various agencies. The expedition was supported by the Chinese Tibetan Mountaineering Association (CTMA), whose conduct was very professional and they, extended full cooperation and assistance to our team.

On 18 April, the team left Lhasa and embarked on its long journey to Shishapangma base camp, which lies in the Dingri county of TAR. Moving on the ‘Friendship Highway’ [5] to Nyalam and passing through the spectacular country side of Shigatse and Tingri, the team entered the ‘Shishapangma Protected, Area’ on 20 April. The Park which has an area of 3727 km lies to the north of Shishapangma and has to its west ‘Pegu Tso’ the biggest lake valley in the southern Tibet, with an area of 300 sq km . We finally crossed Silling the last village on the Shishapangma trail, before driving into the 5000 m high base camp at Kanggyi. The view from here was breath taking, akin to viewing a vast amphitheatre of mountains. world, The epicentre of this without a doubt was the majestic Shishapangma itself.

To my mind Shishapangma is one of the most beautiful mountains in the world. Unlike Makalu, Everest, Lhotse and Cho Oyu, which lie in relative, close proximity to each other, Shishapangma stands isolated, alone in solitary splendour. The mountain reigns supreme amidst a sea of seven-thousanders. As the upper reaches of the mountain are open and exposed from all sides, it is prone to erratic and severe weather conditions. Cold icy winds, including very high velocity winds which are often fallouts of the passing high jet streams, can lash the mountain for days without warning, making even survival on the mountain difficult. The mountain is also prone to heavy snowfall and is fraught with dangers of avalanches.

The year 2005 saw a conglomeration of almost ten international climbing teams on the mountain. Apart from the Indians, there were Americans, Czechs, Austrians, Germans, Italians, Spanish, Japanese, Romanians and Swiss teams. From professional mountain guides to architects, dentists, engineers, aviators, corporate executives, men and women from different walks of life and nationalities gave an international climbing flavour to the base camp (BC) and the advance base camp (ABC) of the mountain. On 22 April, the expedition finally rolled out of BC, when our expedition gear, weighing 1732 kgs, moved on the backs of 44 sturdy yaks. ABC, after a good six hours march was established at 5600 m, on the lateral moraine to the west of Shishapangma glacier. The gigantic ice pinnacles of the glacier were indeed stunning ! As we closed in towards the ABC, the distant mountain and its hazy contours, now started precipitating into a stark physical reality. The hazy northeast ridge had now taken a distinct shape and form, which undoubtedly was the most striking feature of the great north face of Shishapangma. On 27 April, the team as per the Sherpa norm, carried out the traditional puja ,at the ABC. A Ihap Tso was erected and offerings to the gods were made. As the Buddhist chants rent the air in a rising crescendo towards the climax, chuffs descended in good strength on the prayer mast. In retrospect, this augured well for the expedition and perhaps this was gods way of blessing our team, Lha Gyalo!
On 01 May, Camp 1 was occupied after the team carried out three back breaking acclimatisation load ferries to Camp 1. The route from ABC moved along the lateral moraine to the west of the Shishapangma glacier. Crossing the gigantic pinnacles of the glacier and just short of crossing the actual glacier, we established a deposit camp, where we changed into climbing boots and crampons and prepared to cross the Shishapangma glacier. After crossing the western most tributary of Shishapangma glacier with great caution, which emanates from the northern slopes of Porong Ri, we started climbing the highly avalanche prone, central tributary of the glacier emanating from the eastern slopes of Porong Ri and the northern slopes of the distant Risum. The route was throughout threatened by the hanging serac barriers of the Shishapangma glacier, emanating from the eastern face of Porong Ri, Risum and an icefall further east. After crossing some big and dangerous crevasses, we traversed east on a big plateau through a maze of crevasses. Camp 1 was finally established at 6300 m, on the northern tip of the snowfield of this plateau. The camp was surrounded by deep crevasses, some partially covered and some still opening up, which made movement very slow. Tents were pitched with great care and movement was virtually on fixed ropes within the camp. There were three cases of severe injuries due to crevasse falls of climbers in and around Camp 1. The route we chose from Camp 1 to Camp 2, was from the snowfield to the northern slopes of Risum, on the upper Shishapangma glacier. The crossing of the snowfield itself was time consuming, as it was riddled with crevasses and deep chasms. Avoiding the second ice fall, which was to the east of our route, we climbed a dangerous avalanche prone convex slope and veered southeast, to hit the second snow field hemmed between the southern face of Yebakongal Ri and the imposing northwestern face of Shishapangma. En route, a number of fixed ropes in the snowfield and the higher slopes, had to be negotiated. Camp 2 was finally established on 2 May at 6800 m and was subsequently stocked by members ferrying virtually all loads themselves.

The period during 4 to 12 May was ‘no go’ as high winds lashed the massif, which was primarily because of the passing jet streams. The team moved down and had a patient wait of almost 9 days at ABC. Finally, on 15 May after getting clearance from Dr Akhilesh Gupta of the National Centre for Medium Range Weather Forecasting (NCMRWF), who gave us excellent, accurate forecasts, the team moved up and occupied Camp 2. Even as the team moved up high winds persisted and lashed the mountain testing our threshold of endurance to the brink. On Shishapangma, a mountaineer can be caught unawares because of quick weather changes, which often take place without much warning. In fact it would be appropriate to say that this mountain makes its own weather. Such was the wind fury at Camp 2, that two of our strong ‘North Face Tents,’ were ripped open by the winds and were rendered useless.

On 16 May, the complete team moved up to occupy Camp 3 for the final summit bid. From Camp 2, we traversed northeast and crossed a big snowfield to reach the base of the great north face of Shishapangma. From here we cut across southeast, to gain the northeast ridge of the mountain. To gain the northeast ridge, the team crossed a big couloir involving mixed climbing on rock and ice. The couloir was a choke point and dangerous due to falling ice chunks and rocks at regular intervals from the north face of the mountain. The crossing therefore took about 2½ hours.

After gaining the northeast ridge we moved along it, to reach a small wind swept, cold, desolate ice terrace. Camp 3 was established here at 7200 m, which had a stupendous view of the north face of Shishapangma, Tibetan Plateau and Molamenqing to the east. As we reached the camp, a jubilant Japanese team had just returned after scaling the 8012 m high, summit. They had taken 12 hours, to reach the top using bottled oxygen. It was good to see Radio Nippon here !
On 17 May, our summit team left camp at 0200 hours. Although the aim of the expedition was to climb the central summit, the leader also decided to attempt the east summit of Shishapangma. Group 1, comprising of Nb Sub Neel Chand, Nb Sub Rajender Singh and Passang Tsering, would attempt the east summit. Group 2, comprising of Colonel A. Abbey, Ranveer Singh, C. Norbu, Nb Sub Mohinder Singh, Khushal Singh, Passang Tharkay and Ang Nyima, would attempt the Central Summit.

Immediately ahead of Camp 3 was a small snowfield, which was followed by a broken rock band, with mixed rock and ice. The team then moved along the sharp northeast ridge of the mountain, for a number of pitches and reached a prominent gendarme, at 0630 hours. This prominent gendarme is a landmark on the northeast ridge of Shishapangma. While on Everest and some other popular mountains, fixed ropes are a continuous affair, mercifully on Shishapangma, on a number of exposed pitches there are no fixed ropes. Here in the ‘Death Zone’ free climbing had to be resorted to, where every climber, was on his own. Without using bottled oxygen, the challenge of the climb was even greater at that altitude! A second exposed rock band was negotiated at 0700 hours, which again involved mixed climbing. The last section of the corniced northeast ridge was again exposed, which finally joined the main summit ridge of Shishapangma, the central summit of the mountain. The summit of Shishapangma is a corniced sharp point, with no room to stand on the top. The mother ridge, which is the main summit ridge is about 1400 m long and is heavily corniced with the mountain plunging into an abyss to the south. All members of Group 2 reached the summit with the last one reaching at 0805 hours. Spectacular views of the great Tibetan plateau to the north, the Jugal and the Langtang Himal to the south and the Everest, Lhotse, Cho Oyu, Makalu massifs were seen to the east. The Nayanang Phu valley could also be seen to the south. The team after spending twenty minutes on the summit commenced descending.

Members of Group 1, from the gendarme, cut across great north face of Shishapangma. They negotiated the prominent boulder area on the north face and hit the main summit ridge further east of the central summit. They however had to stop when they were 80 m horizontally short of the east summit of Shishapangma not due to any technical difficulty, but due to the great objective dangers of possible avalanches and cornice. By 0930 hours, the winds had picked up and both the groups continued their descent in high winds. After winding up Camp 3, the team reached Camp 2 at 1500 hours the same day. The team ensured that the mountain was cleared of all litter and garbage. Higher camps and ABC sites were thoroughly cleaned, including some of the refuse left by other expeditions. Finally on 20 April after a rapid descent, a jubilant team congregated at base camp. Tibet, was simply amazing ! As I walked back for the last time, from the ABC with some Romanian and Spanish climbers towards base camp, we were all spell bound by the fantastic landscape. We were simply astonished to see the still frozen Nagoda river in the month of May and that too after midday - a streak of white ice piercing through a land of browns ! Sipping a cup of Solja (salted Tibetan tea) at base camp, I spoke to an Austrian mountain guide about his team’s aborted attempt on Shishapangma and our experience on the mountain. We both watched curiously, as hardy Tibetan Yakpas (Yak owners) using all their tact and skill, finally cornered their naughty Yaks into submission and managed to get all the loads off their strong, sturdy backs. As I looked across the vast grassy plane, Xixabangma radiated its regal presence - Gosainathan, had indeed been kind to us I thought, for just a few days earlier we were struggling against the elements to climb the mountain. Undoubtedly, we were lucky to have survived this mountain ! It was late in the day, when Dorjee, our driver sounded a gentle horn reminding me that it was time to for us to leave. Even as he spoke, clouds started engulfing the mountain from the east and soon the mountain was lost in a thick veil of clouds. Finally, we were comfortably cruising in a Land Cruiser, on our long journey to Dingri plains and onward to Lhasa, with fond, nostalgic memories of this great mountain of Tibet.


Team : Colonel Ashok Abbey (Principal), Ranveer Singh, Nb Sub Mohinder Singh, Shri C. Norbu, Nb Sub Neel Chand, Nb Sub Rajender Singh, Khushal Singh and Dr. Hari Paul Singh. Punjab Police.

Sherpas : Passang Tsering (Sherpa Sirdar), Passang Tharkay and Ang Nyima.

Summary : Ascent of Shishapangma (8012 m) made on 17 May 2006, by a team of the Nehru Institute of Mountaineering (NIM) Uttarkashi, from the northeast ridge, without using bottled oxygen.

[1] Toni Hagen was a noted Swiss geologist and explorer who apart from introducing cheese to the locals in the Langtang valley of Nepal, also published the first topographical sketch of the area in 1953.

[2] (i) Himalayan Journal, Vol. XIV, 1947, p. 116-20 (ii) Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Harrer.

[3] Les Alpes1959, p. 194-9

[4] Shishapangma by Doug Scott and Alex Macintyre

[5] Between Road markers 613 and 614 on the Friendship Highway, the road to Shishapangma, base camp branches to the west