American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Shishapangma's Southwest Face

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 1983

Shishapangma’s Southwest Face

Douglas Scott, Alpine Climbing Group

SHISHAPANGMA LIES a hundred miles west-northwest of Everest to the north of Nepal and wholly in Tibet. The Tibetan name means “The Crest above the Grassy Plain.” The Sanskrit name, Gosainthan, means “Home of God.” Its height has been given as 8013 meters or 26,291 feet, although recently the Survey of India has called it 8046 meters or 26,398 feet. If the latter figure is accepted, Shishapangma is the world’s thirteenth highest peak. It had been climbed before. The first ascent was made in 1964 by the Chinese, who had 195 members working on the northern side. In 1980 Tibet was opened to foreigners. In 1980 and 1981 Shishapangma was climbed four more times from the north by the Chinese route or variations of it.

The vast south side, the Nyanang Phu Glacier and the Phu Chu valley had never been visited except by local yak men part way. Thus the southwest face, the main objective of our expedition, was unknown except for photographs taken from the air or from peaks in Nepal, fifteen miles away. We hoped to climb the face without a reconnaissance and in alpine style.

Nick Prescott sought permission for Shishapangma. He wrote the Chinese Mountaineering Association in the summer of 1979, was “invited to apply” at Easter of 1980 and received permission in the summer. His original team backed out and he handed the expedition over to me in March of 1981, though he continued to do nearly all the difficult administrative work. Our final team comprised Roger Baxter-Jones, Alex MacIntyre, Elaine Brook, Paul Braithwaite, Nick Prescott and me. Elaine and Nick would climb during the acclimatization period. Then Elaine would make contact with local Tibetans and Nick would be in support of the rest of us on Shishapangma’s southwest face.

Climbing in China is about five times as expensive as climbing a comparable peak in Nepal. Consequently we travelled light and declined to have an expedition cook and mail runners. All in all, this was a very spartan trip.

We arrived in Beijing on April 4 and arranged our onward schedule with the Chinese Mountaineering Association. Wu Ming, our interpreter, joined the expedition there. We flew to Chengdu on April 8 and to Lhasa on the 9th. There we were joined by our liaison officer, Pemba. After visiting the old town of Lhasa, on the 10th we travelled by lorry to the roadhead at Nyalam, arriving on the 14th after visiting Shigatse and Shekar. Although we enjoyed the drive across the vast Tibetan plateau, we saw ruined monasteries dynamited by Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. We established Advanced Base Camp on May 3, just south of the unclimbed peak of Nyanang Ri (7071 meters, 23,200 feet).

The acclimatization period was from May 4 to 25. Braithwaite was ill with an old chest complaint and remained in camp with Prescott, who was suffering from diarrhoea and poor acclimatization. With three bivouacs, from May 4 to 7 we climbed up the south ridge of Nyanang Ri and across leftwards on ice and snow below the summit to the northeast ridge. We did not go to the top. Elaine got to 19,000 feet and retired as she was unable to acclimatize in the short period available. Braithwaite sadly left for home on May 13 rather than risk permanent injury. Elaine Brook left for Lhasa on May 15, having many adventures and staying with various Tibetan families en route.

The remaining four of us established Castle Camp at 19,000 feet, three miles northwest of Advanced Base. We headed first for Pungpa Ri, which is really a shoulder of Shishapangma about a mile away and separated from its parent by a 24,000-foot saddle. Baxter-Jones, MacIntyre and I set off from Castle Camp at 10:30 A.M. on May 17 and climbed a 45° couloir to bivouac below a col at 22,000 feet. The next day we climbed the south ridge (UIAA Grade IV) in a strong wind to a bivouac 500 feet below the summit. On May 19 we went to the top of Pungpa Ri (7445 meters, 24,425 feet) and descended by the same route, arriving at Castle Camp at eight P.M., a very long day. We had now accomplished our acclimatization and knew of at least one way down from Shishapangma, although so far we had not seen the way up in detail. Whilst we were on this route, Prescott had reconnoitered a minor peak at the southern end of the Shishapangma ridge, which he subsequently climbed part way up.

On May 25 Baxter-Jones, MacIntyre, Prescott and I left Castle Camp and traversed for two miles across glaciers and under dangerous séracs to the base of the southeast face. We then climbed for a thousand feet on easy rock and snow to find a perfect bivouac site in a little rock basin on a buttress jutting out from the face. Prescott went down from there to remain at Castle Camp in support. On the 25th we climbed mostly unroped, taking a line that slopes up from right to left to just southeast of the summit. MacIntyre and Baxter-Jones took a line up 50° ice and snow and I went up a rock rib before the three of us joined to climb the last 1500 feet (with some Grade V sections) of mixed ground to bivouac at 23,000 feet in the obvious “pea-pod” snow couloir. On the 27th we climbed up this unroped to bivouac at 25,000 feet. We continued unroped up the couloir on May 28 to the southeast ridge, which we followed for 500 feet to get to the summit at two P.M. We went to the higher east summit, which is about 80 feet higher than the west summit some 300 yards away. MacIntyre and I went across toward the west summit but stopped short of the top because of dangerous cornices.

That afternoon we descended the southeast ridge to bivouac at 24,900 feet. On May 29 we descended further to the saddle at 24,000 feet. Then after climbing down another 400 feet roped, we went down 45° to 55° snow ice unroped except for two rappels to the glacier and around to Castle Camp at seven P.M.

Although the climb was somewhat easier than expected and not as long— about 8500 vertical feet—it proved to be one of the most satisfying we have done in the Himalaya, a classic line up varied terrain on a major isolated and unexplored face.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Tibetan Himalaya.

Ascents: Pungpa Ri, 7445 meters (24,425 feet), first ascent, via South Ridge, May 19, 1982 (Baxter-Jones, MacIntyre, Scott).

Shishapangma, 8013 or 8046 meters (26,291 or 26,398 feet), new route, the Southwest Face and traverse down the Southeast Ridge, May 27, 1982 (Baxter-Jones, MacIntyre, Scott).

Personnel: Roger Baxter-Jones, Alexander MacIntyre, Elaine Brook, Paul (Tut) Braithwaite, Nicholas Prescott, Douglas Scott.

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