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Asia, Tibet, Menlungtse Western Summit

Menlungtse Western Summit. Menlungtse (7181 meters, 23,560 feet) is one of the most beautiful and difficult peaks in the Himalaya. It has two summits and the higher one to the east remains unclimbed. The local Tibetan name is Jobo Garu, but Eric Shipton named it Menlungtse when he and Michael Ward were the first Europeans to enter the Menlung valley in 1951. Our Norwegian-British expedition of 1987 did not succeed in climbing the peak by the south buttress. In 1988, the entire team assembled in Kathmandu on March 31 planning to cross the border at the Friendship Bridge on April 5 only to receive a telex from the Chinese Mountaineering Association that it was not convenient for us to climb Menlungtse. After a week of frantic telexes to Beijing, we at last received permission to cross the border. We had been pawns in a wrangle between the CMA and the Tibetan authorities over who had the right to give permission for Menlungtse. We finally crossed the border on April 12 to be met by Fan Xiachan, our competent and friendly interpreter, who told us that our Tibetan liaison officer had been forbidden to join us. We set out from the roadhead a few miles short of the Tibetan side of the Nangpa La on April 18 with 89 yaks for the Fushi La and the Rongshar valley. We reached the village of Chang Bu Jiang on April 21 and changed yaks there to reach Base Camp on April 27 at 4585 meters at the yak herders’ camp at Palbugthang, near Advance Base of 1987. The most attractive route seemed to be the east ridge, which leads straight to the main summit. On the 28th Americans David Breashears and Steve Shea and I walked up the valley but the east ridge looked formidable, being very long, bristling with cornices and steep on either side. We decided to attempt the west ridge, though it did entail crossing the west summit and making a high, but seemingly easy, traverse of a mile to the east summit. On May 1, Breashears, Shea, Andy Fanshawe and I climbed P 5753 (18,875 feet) to the immediate south of Base Camp to acclimatize and get good views of the west ridge. After fixing 180 meters of rope on mixed ground on the bottom of the ridge, we set out on May 7 and reached 5800 meters after climbing a steep open ice gully to the crest of the west ridge and a good camp site. The following morning, a long easy traverse across the hanging glacier that covers the center of the west face took us to a wide scoop leading into the center of the face. Above some hard green ice, we made another good camp at 6250 meters in a wide, filled crevasse below a huge bergschrund. That night, I led a rope-length up 50° ice and the following morning we set off, hoping to reach and climb the headwall. A storm seemed to threaten and since we had reached another bergschrund with a perfect camp site, we stopped there at 6600 meters. As we enjoyed the afternoon’s rest, Breashears ran out our two ropes towards the gully that appeared to lead through the headwall. On May 10, a diagonal traverse of five pitches, at first on névé and then on green ice, took us to the foot of the headwall. Since it didn t look as if we could get through that day, we retreated. After four days, we had another look at the east ridge, this time going onto the glacier on its east flank, but this aspect looked even worse. Breashears and Shea felt they didn t want to go back to the west ridge but they gallantly carried gear for Britons Andy Fanshawe and Alan Hinkes up our fixed ropes on the west ridge on May 18. The latter two reached Camp I on May 19 but were tired enough to have a rest day. On May 21, they had a long day, moving to Camp III at 6600 meters. A severe thunderstorm that night covered their tent and forced them to shift it to a safer place. The next morning, their ropes had been buried and it took them four hours to dig them out. By that time, it was too late to start and they had another rest day. The morning of May 23 dawned cloudy and threatening. They delayed setting out until nine A.M., travelling light. Instead of traversing to the gully as on the first attempt, they climbed straight up towards the headwall, reaching it around midday. The rock on the wall was loose and difficult with mixed climbing on thin slabs alternating with icy runnels. The top was the crux and ascended a frighteningly loose overhanging chimney. Once on the ridge, their troubles were not over, with powder snow covering smooth slabs for forty meters until they reached firm snow. They kept on in the dark by the light of a headlamp to reach the west summit (7023 meters, 23,042 feet) at 10:30 Beijing time. Before dark, they had superb views of Cho Oyu, Gyachung Kang and the east summit of Menlungtse, a mile away across a broad, easy saddle that led to the knife-edged summit ridge of green ice. Having been on the go for 13½hours, they decided to satisfy themselves with the west summit. After a precarious descent in the dark, they got back to Camp III at two A.M. to find a hole in the tent from one of the rocks they had dislodged on the headwall. They returned to the bottom the following day.

Christian Bonington, A.A.C and Alpine Climbing Group