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The Kangshung Face of Everest

The Kangshung Face of Everest

Geoffrey C. Tabin

The 1981 AMERICAN Mount Everest Expedition to China made the first climbing attempt on the vast east face, the Kangshung Face, of Chomolungma. We succeeded in convincing ourselves that the face can and will be climbed, although we were stopped far short of the summit. We completed the most technical section, a 3500-foot rock-and-ice buttress, which we called the “Lowe Buttress” after George Lowe. Above this there are 7000 vertical feet of low-angle snow slope leading directly to the summit. Unfortunately we could not go on due to unsettled snow conditions and severe slab- avalanche danger. In another year, with better weather, the Kangshung Face will provide climbers with the most direct route to the top of the world.

The first report on the Kangshung Face came from George Leigh Mallory on the 1921 British reconnaissance. It was not encouraging. He wrote:

We had already by this hour taken time to observe the great Eastern Face of Mt. Everest, and more particularly the lower edge of the hanging glacier; it required but little further gazing to be convinced—to know that almost everywhere the rocks below must be exposed to ice falling from the glacier; that if, elsewhere, it might be possible to climb up, the performance would be too arduous, would take too much time and would lead to no convenient platform; that, in short, other men, less wise, might attempt this way if they would, but, emphatically, it was not for us.

The Tibetan border soon shut. No western climber observed the face at close range for the next fifty-nine years. In the spring of 1980, a French Army team observed it from a distance, giving a report similar to Mallory’s. Also in March 1980, Dick Blum secured a permit for the first American expedition going into Tibet to climb Mount Everest. The permit allowed an attempt either on the north side or the east. Photographs taken by Kurt Diemberger revealed what seemed to be a possible route.

In the fall of 1980, Andy Harvard became the first climber since 1921 to approach the face. His report was optimistic. Andy’s photos showed what appeared to be two relatively safe routes. Our expedition’s main objective became the east face.

Fund raising, organization and even team selection lasted until literally departure time. Finally, on August 10, 1981 John Roskelley and Lou Reichardt, the climbing leader, left San Francisco for Peking where they met our interpreter and liaison officer. Eleven more members and a three-man ABC television crew left the next day, flying via Hong Kong where they met Sir Edmund Hillary. Hillary helped with fund raising and accompanied us to Base Camp. Scott McBeth and I followed a week later. Scott was delayed by a leg infection and I by visa problems as a last-minute substitute for Henry Barber. The first fourteen members were reunited in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, for a fabulous banquet before flying to Lhasa.

The team spent three days in Lhasa, organizing equipment, shopping, and exploring the magical city. In Lhasa Hillary was reunited with Tensing Norgay, who was leading a trek. We also had two other notable Everesters with us. Our liaison officer was Wang Fu Chow, who in 1960 reached the summit from the north. One of our cameramen, Kurt Diemberger, reached the top in 1978. This wealth of experience was reassuring to everyone. The mood was optimistic as our trucks set out on the dusty road to Xigatse. We spent two days in Xigatse, waiting for the last of our boxes to be transported. It was then on to Xigare with its spectacular Dzong, or hillside fortress, that guards the pass to Nepal. One more bumpy day on the trucks led to the end of the dirt track in Kharta.

The Kharta valley was lush, green, and beautiful, a contrast to the arid Tibetan plains. Three days were spent sorting gear, waiting for Yaks and protecting string, the item of choice for quick-fingered Khartans. Next came a lovely six-day approach march. The path led over the Shogo La (16,000 feet) down into the Kama Valley and up alongside the Kang- shung Glacier under Makalu, Chomolonzo, Pethangtse and Lhotse. Unfortunately, the monsoon brought rain every day and clouds obscured the views.

Base Camp at 17,000 feet was reached on August 28. Despite continuing clouds and light monsoon snows, the group immediately set out across the glacier, scouting out a route to the base of the buttress and establishing an advanced base camp, Buttress Camp. By September 1 discussions were begun over the choice of two routes. One followed the right edge of the buttress. This included going up the side of a large avalanche cone, then a short rock wall, which gives a quick and easy path to the snow slopes above. The disadvantage lay in avalanche danger down low. The other option was to work out a route directly up the buttress. This was a complicated alpine route of rock, snow, and ice with long mushroomed ridges. It appeared possible, but very hard. It was safer from avalanches, but difficult logistically. Because of the avalanche danger on the right, we chose the buttress route. Chris Jones led the first pitch with cameraman David Breashears. Two easy rock pitches led to a slanting traverse area giving way to unstable knee-deep snowfields. George Lowe and Dan Reid took over the lead the next day on slippery rock. By September 4, 700 meters of rope was fixed. On September 5, Kim Momb and Lowe began climbing the first section of mushroomed ridges. They found unstable conditions, breaking through to the thigh with every step. A single rope-length took over two hours to lead. Kim led one pitch crawling on all fours. His assessment was “we’re screwed.”

It snowed all night. The next morning all returned to Base Camp. The first clear view of the face appeared with the sun. John Roskelley declared the face too dangerous and argued strongly for the group to go around to the north side. The clouds closed in and the late monsoon storms kept everyone off the buttress for six days. During this time controversy over the expedition’s goal flared. Did we want a summit or the exploration of a new route? On September 10, a team meeting was called at Base Camp in an attempt to bring all feelings into the open and unite the team with a common goal. Sir Edmund Hillary made a very stirring speech, saying that it would be insignificant for the American team to reach the summit of Everest by the north, but that an attempt of any kind on the east face would be a triumph of the human spirit and a significant step forward in international mountaineering. His talk roused enthusiasm dampened by the late monsoon snow. The team voted on what to do. All but Roskelley and Eric Perlman voted to stay with the east face.

The team flocked back to the buttress. Gary Bocarde and Lowe established Camp I or Snow Camp at 19,000 feet. They pushed the route laboriously along the mushroomed ridges in deep snow. The route advanced to a prominent ice gully leading through the mushrooms. George Lowe soloed the gully, trailing a coil of rope. It was mostly 50° with a few sections up to 65°. The gully soon became known as the “Bowling Alley” because of the bowling-ball-sized chunks of rock and ice which whistled down from the face above. We were the pins. Thus Camp II, established above the Bowling Alley at 20,500 feet, became “Pinsetter Camp.” This put us at the base of the big rock headwall. On a sadder note, Hillary developed cerebral edema and had to be evacuated. Jim Morrissey went with him to Kharta. Reid and Perlman now joined Lowe in the leading while the rest of the group carried loads up the ropes in support. The headwall began with Lowe following an F7 corner with very friable rock. Perlman led the next F6 pitch on rotten shale as it began to snow. Reid took over the lead as the storm increased. He went up thirty feet before taking a ten-foot fall. He charged right back up. The storm was now coming in so thickly that they decided to retreat before he could finish the pitch. They descended all the way to Buttress Camp.

Reid returned with Jones and assaulted the pitch he had fallen on, which became known as “Reid’s Nemesis.” Three falls later, he was over it and the route inched forward. Lowe now returned to the front with Sue Giller. Lowe led the crux of the headwall, which was a very rotten F6 and A3 or A4. Sue said that she had “never felt so frightened on a climb” as belaying on the rotten headwall with falling rock showering her constantly. This left only one more rope-length to reach the snow. Another big two-day snowstorm came on September 20, and the team had a much needed rest.

September 22 brought a beautiful, clear morning with phenomenal views. The most spectacular sight was an enormous avalanche which broke off just to the right of the buttress. Its cloud billowed in slow motion completely filling a three-mile cirque and its wind blast shook Base Camp, depositing snow eight miles away. John Roskelley, who had already decided not to climb, made the decision to leave. Meanwhile, back on the buttress, Kim Momb joined Lowe and they reached the ice ramps above the rock. Momb was suffering from a bad stomach flu but continued to work hard. With Reid and Lowe, he continued the route up the ice helmet on 45° to 60° snow-ice. Kim descended back to Base Camp where he announced that he was leaving the expedition along with Roskelley and Bruce McCubbrey. Their departure left us very short in manpower. Andy Harvard was unable to climb because of a neck injury and Jim Morrissey was still away with Ed Hillary. This left only eight climbers on the buttress.

On September 26 Lowe, along with Reid and Breashears, finished the route up the last difficult ice pitch to arrive on the low-angle snow plateau above. Another storm was closing in, so they set up a camp, and then descended. Perlman and Bocarde carried up the ropes and spent the night at our high or Helmet Camp (22,000 feet). The storm continued for two days as Reid and Lowe descended for much needed rests. For them, the timing was perfect. A trek had just arrived which had Reid’s wife and Lowe’s father at Base Camp. Perlman and Bocarde examined the snow and crevasses above and returned with a very negative report. Morrissey had now returned and the entire group gathered at Base Camp to discuss options.

Bocarde and Perlman said that they felt the route to be too dangerous. They did not like the rockfall on the buttress or avalanches above and would not be going up again. Lowe and Reid felt things were reasonably safe and were optimistic about our chance of success. The rest of us gave opinions in between. In cold and clear weather seven of us returned to the buttress on October 1.

Loads were carried and the route cleared of snow. Climbing leader Reichardt formulated plans for a lightweight summit assault by two to four climbers. Reichardt had been consistently carrying more and heavier loads than anyone else on the team. Although not leading, he had been a driving force from within throughout the climb. Sue Giller and Lowe were the first ones back above the Helmet. Sue looked at the avalanche scars above and decided not to go on. She would, however, support a summit team to that point. Our chance of success decreased when Jones developed a respiratory ailment and had to go down to Base Camp.

The next day, October 5, Reichardt reached the top of the Helmet. In two hours he led past the big crevasses which Bocarde predicted would take two weeks to cross. Nonetheless, he made the decision to call off the expedition. He based the decision on several factors. The first is that despite the directness of the route, we had a long way to go. We were still below 23,000 feet. We had only five climbers willing to go up higher, and Morrissey was not yet well acclimatized. Beyond this, only Lou had been high without oxygen before (on the summit of K2 in 1978). He felt that it was likely that Dan Reid, George Lowe, or I would have problems. Without oxygen or support, it would be difficult to deal with illness or injury above the buttress. The snow was still not well settled and slab-avalanche danger existed. Finally, it was late in the season and the winter jet-stream wind storms were likely to arrive soon. In short, he did not feel the risk of injury was justified by the small chance of reaching the summit.

The next five days were spent evacuating the mountain. Dan Reid was struck in the leg by a large rock while descending the Bowling Alley. Luckily, he was able to get down on his own to the base of the buttress where Dr. Morrissey stitched the wound. While waiting for the yaks to come for our gear, George Lowe and I climbed on Khartse (22,300 feet). It was a beautiful climb, mostly on steep snow. We were stopped one micrometer from the top by George’s fear of a peak fee. As far as I know, this was (almost) the second ascent. Mallory reached the summit with a Sherpa in 1921.

Our descent from Base Camp followed the Kangshung Glacier down and then veered over the 18,000-foot Langma La. We then headed down to the Kharta Valley. The walk out took four days and provided spectacular views in clear weather.

Chinese trucks brought us from Kharta back to Xigare where we split into two groups. Lowe, Reichardt, Perlman, Morrissey, and I went to attempt Xixabangma (Shishapangma; 26,262 feet) accompanied by our liaison officer Wang Fu Chow. Mr. Wang had also made the first ascent of this peak. The rest of the group went with our interpreter back to Lhasa and home.

In allowing us to go to Xixabangma, the Chinese demonstrated again their generosity and sincere interest in helping us to have the best climbing trip possible. Mr. Wang in particular smoothed out all logistical, porter or procedural difficulties before they became a problem. Allowing us to attempt Xixabangma also brought us into a strikingly beautiful area of Tibet. High peaks rise directly from the arid plain, with no foothills to block the view. The effect is startling.

We were able to drive directly to Base Camp and yaks brought our supplies up to Camp II at 19,500 feet. At Camp II, we found food left by Gerry Roach’s American expedition. We followed his wanded path across the glacier and up a steep, crevassed snow slope to Camp III. Here, we found two tents and food left by Messner. It seemed as if we were in a supermarket. We decided to bring oxygen in an effort to insure that all five of us reached the summit. This meant two carries to Camp III and proved to be a mistake. On October 24, Reichardt and Perlman moved to Camp IV at 23,400 feet. On October 25, the jet-stream winds began. The tent blew apart with Reichardt and Perlman in it. They retreated to Camp III to wait. The winds were 80 to 100 miles per hour at the notch where Camp IV was situated, and 50 to 60 miles per hour at Camp III. We waited for seven days with no let-up. On November 1, Perlman and I retreated to Base Camp. Reichardt, Morrissey and a reluctant Lowe went down the next day. George would have waited until spring for the summit, had it been possible.

We five thus became the first expedition to fail on two 8000-meter peaks in the same season. Despite not reaching the top, the Xixabangma trip was worthwhile for those of us involved, because of the excellent team atmosphere that evolved. A bond developed between five committed people striving for a common goal. It was the type of situation that really makes expedition-climbing worthwhile. The Everest attempt also had many good aspects. Most importantly, we established a route that future expeditions will be able to utilize in conquering the Kangshung Face. We also had a successful mission of friendship with the Chinese that we hope will lead to future American expeditions in China and Chinese expeditions in America.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Tibet.

Attempted Ascents: Mount Everest via the Kangshung Face to c. 23,000 feet, August to October, 1981.

Xixabangma (Shishapangma) to 23,400 feet October, 1981.

Personnel: Richard Blum, leader; Louis F. Reichardt, climbing leader; David Breashears, Gary Bocarde, Kurt Diemberger, Susan Giller, Andrew C. Harvard, Sir Edmund Hillary, Christopher Jones, George Lowe, Scott McBeth, Bruce McCubbrey, Kim Momb, James Morrissey, M.D., Eric Perlman, Daniel Reid, M.D., John Roskelley, Geoffrey C. Tabin, Mikael Reynolds.