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Alone on Dorje Lhakpa

Alone on Dorje Lhakpa Carlos Buhler

Dorje LHAKPA IS A RELATIVELY UNEXPLORED BUT BEAUTIFUL PEAK in the Jugal Himal, in the southern part of the same group that includes Shisha Pangma. It is 55 kilometers northeast of Kathmandu, near the eastern end of the Langshisa Glacier. It is the southernmost of the three principal peaks near the head of that glacier. The other two are Gurkarpo Ri and Lengpo Kang. All three are worthwhile objectives, but Dorje Lhakpa is the most alluring from the Lanshisa side. It was off limits until 1981. Its first official and recognized ascent took place that year when the mountain was opened to joint foreign-Nepali teams only. A Japanese-Nepali team reached the summit via the west ridge. Over the following ten years, six teams attempted the climb with four achieving success. All climbed the same west ridge.

I applied for the peak in 1991 when the Ministry of Tourism explained the peculiarities of a joint expedition. I had two experienced Sherpa friends, Lhakpa Dorje and Nuru, who were interested in working with the expedition, and so the officials let me include our cook as the third required Nepali of our team. To make matters simpler, my Sherpa friends were not interested in going to the summit. In keeping with my idea that the most enjoyment comes from climbing with the smallest groups, I limited the number of non-Nepali climbers. Jon Aylward, from Yorkshire, England, had written to me about climbing in the Himalaya’s less explored areas. The two of us were to be the entire “foreign” team.

I suspected that several unexplored ribs on Dorje Lhakpa would reveal brilliant climbs, but since it was hard to judge difficulties from our limited selection of photographs, we adopted a wait-and-see attitude. A promising line was the unclimbed buttress on the left of the northwest face. Another possibility was a direct route up the central part of the face itself.

Though Dorje Lhakpa can be approached in five or six days from the village of Dhunche, a longer walk does wonders for getting one prepared for a Himalayan peak. We decided to extend the approach by four days, beginning from Sundarijal, 50 minutes from Kathmandu. This trail took us up a beautiful ridge to the 4600-meter Laurebinayak Pass and led by the famous Gosainkund Lakes. From there we dropped to the village of Syabru, where we joined the Dhunche trail from the west. We continued up the Langtang valley and then up the Langshisa valley to a site on the Langshisa Glacier at 4780 meters directly below the north side of Kanshurum. Despite problems with getting porters to help us that high, we got to the site on April 2. It was a fabulous spot on the glacier with a full view of the northwest side of Dorje Lhakpa as well as full views of Gurkarpo Ri and Lengpo Kang.

During the final days of hauling loads up to Base Camp, Jon became fatigued and then somewhat ill. For several days after our arrival, he rested. Meanwhile, I teamed up with Lhakpa Dorje and made a quick single-day trip to a 5100-meter col at the foot of the west ridge.

Lhakpa Dorje and I then took two days of provisions and a tent to camp on a low shoulder of the west ridge at 5250 meters, just before the climbing steepens. Though Lhakpa’s experience in the Himalaya is impressive, he was not comfortable without fixed rope on the hard, blue ice on the exposed ridge. He was happy to remain in the tent the next day while I climbed up to have a look around. Old ropes, originally anchored to snow stakes, were now dangling on top of hard ice. To facilitate a future descent, I reset some anchors to make use of the rope I could chip free from the ice. I climbed the 35° to 45° ice and passed nervously over large crevasses that crisscrossed the icy ridge. My high point was 6050 meters, a hundred meters above another large shoulder where Koreans and others had obviously camped. From my position there on an exposed, narrow ridge, the remaining 900 meters to the top left many unanswered questions. The knife-edge leveled out for about 200 meters before curving upwards at a 30° angle and running into unstable-looking séracs at 6250 meters. Above these blocks, the ridge ran straight up to 6400 meters, where it took a sharp turn to the left. It looked as though one could follow the ridge eventually to reach easier slopes toward the summit cone.

I descended the ridge to the tent and Lhakpa and I enjoyed a beautiful sunset. The next day, April 9, we returned to Base Camp, hoping that after these three days, Jon would be better.

I took a rest day and, on the 11th, Jon and I set off for an acclimatization hike toward the Dorje Lhakpa-Kanshurum col. Only an hour out of Base Camp, Jon realized that he was not yet feeling his normal strength. The disappointment was agonizing for him. We had no choice but to turn back. That afternoon, we agreed that the only course of action for him was to descend to Kyangin Gompa for a long enough period to recover. Our delightful cook assistant, Mingma, was willing to go down with him to interpret and keep him company.

I started thinking about whether the west ridge could be soloed. After Jon’s twelve days of illness, there was no way of telling how long it would take him before he felt strong enough to climb. Furthermore, he would have to acclimate before he could do any sort of alpine-style climbing.

When Jon left Base Camp, I sensed that I should try the ridge while the weather was steady. There were a lot of fears I had to resolve before I could make the decision to try the route alone. My preparations would need to be simple. I would carry only what was essential. To reach the summit and descend in 55 hours I must solo terrain where I normally used a rope. The factor that would make it possible was that I would be carrying practically nothing the day I pushed for the top Sleep came that night more peacefully than I expected. I had familiar feelings unique to mountaineering situations. Before a difficult climb, my overriding emotion is a fear of being unable to handle every situation that might arise. That includes a fear of dying. Yet, it is more a fear of the “what ifs?” than the fear of being hit by a falling stone or of a rappel anchor giving away. At any rate, I usually don’t sleep well before an important climb, but on the night of the 11th I slept reasonably well. I felt an illogical assurance from Lhakpa Dorje’s offer to accompany me for an hour’s walk from Base Camp. I didn’t like leaving camp by myself. His act of companionship may have allowed me to sleep deeply. In any event, by 7:30 A.M. I was on my way.

It is April 14. The climb is finished. I lie in my tent with the radio bringing me news of the outside world: British elections, the acquittal of Los Angeles policemen for the beating of Rodney King, the severe struggles for democracy in the streets of Kathmandu. Though it all seems incredibly intense, I am dulled by exhaustion. Outside my tent stands the shimmering wall of the northwest face of Dorje Lhakpa. On the right border is the ridge I have just descended. I don’t want to take in this spectacular view right now. I let my mind flow in an unobstructed stream. This is my reward for having completed this climb. It is an unfiltered, unprotected state of mind that flows like sparkling water out of a mountain stream on a summer day. Its soothing gentleness kindles relaxation and the release of anxiety.

As I descended the ridge at night some hours before, I had been like a little child with no strength left. I tried to choke down a biscuit as I stood in the lonely darkness. I was so thirsty! Small bits of ice in my mouth faked momentary relief.

I needed strength to go on. The ridge wound its way into the shadows. Over the cornice at its end lay the two rappels to the base of the triangular ice face. My bivouac tent was there, offering safety and water. I lived for that arrival. I was wiped out but I could not let myself stop. Surrounded by the blue light of the moon, I faithfully followed the beam of my headlamp. I could make no mistakes. Employing both my hand tools, I negotiated short ice traverses between rock, clawing along until I reached a restful stance. I clung to the thought of lying in my bivy tent, safe from the verticality tugging at my heels. I made one rappel, impatient with the clumsiness I displayed to the stars and moon. After chopping a small platform for footing on the 65° ice, I drove in a solid screw for the second rappel. As I fixed the line, I felt a sense of satisfaction. I could still take precautions although my body wept for rest. When I reached the tent a few minutes later, it was 9:59 P.M. Barring a mistake, I would make it down the next day.

Twenty-four hours earlier, I had set my alarm for three A.M. and had set off from my 5950-meter bivouac at five A.M. In my ultra-light rucksack, I carried

a liter of water, 100 feet of 6mm line, some shortbread, sunscreen, film and a camera. I exulted in the beauty of the sunrise. I climbed along the lengthy horizontal section of the ridge, staying to the right of the crest. I prayed that the séracs at 6250 meters would allow safe passage. My pace was comfortable though rapid. As daylight widened my world, I was surprised by the airiness of the ridge. It was much more exposed than the photos had revealed. Langtang Lining caught the light of the sun before any of the other peaks. Its beauty left me dazzled. Alone, in a sea of peaks, I felt like a flea on the arm of a mighty giant.

As I approached the séracs, a yearning for the answer to my doubts made me impatient to reach them. A short, steep wall led me into a labyrinth of ice. Insecurity competed with my desire to go on. I climbed delicately up a shattered ice band and into a cluster of 30-meter-high séracs. The ice underneath was studded with crevasses and I stepped carefully to avoid them. After a tricky step over a bergschrund, I climbed the wall to my left. In another 50 meters, I found the remains of a camp. It was nine A.M. Had the previous team begun from this spot and not where I had bivouacked? Would this mean more hours of climbing than I had anticipated?

Beyond the séracs, I was barred by a crevasse running horizontally across the face of the ridge. I climbed up, stepped onto the lip and planted my tools in the soft snow above. But I could not make the move. Would the tools hold if the soft snow under my feet gave way? Losing precious time, I traversed along the edge of the crevasse, looking for a place I could cross. After a fruitless 20-minute search, I returned to my initial spot. I dug the tools in again and pulled hard to step up. They held and I panted a heavy sigh of relief.

Once across the crevasse, I continued climbing along the ridge’s right face. Numerous smaller crevasses carved through the ice. In each case, I found a point where the edges came close enough to stem across and continue upward. I was making good progress when I frontpointed up a 55° sheet of ice which leveled out onto a shoulder at the place where the ridge made its steep turn to the left. Three more hours had elapsed.

I was completely unprepared for the view that awaited me when I stopped and surveyed the last 500 meters. From the shoulder I looked into a 200-meter-wide glacial amphitheater. The ridge I had hoped to climb became a sheer-sided knife-edge of crumbly rock circling to form the left side of the bowl. It was bare of snow. A three-meter-wide snow-covered bergschrund separated the shoulder from the basin. Another open crevasse cut across the middle of the bowl, barring access to the wall above. Yet, the real dilemma was above. As the walls swept up towards the base of the summit cone, an open, nasty bergschrund cut continuously across the entire face. Was there a route over the upper bergschrund? I ate and drank a bit. To cross the ’schrund immediately in front of me, I inched my way across a stable-looking snow bridge. Whoosh! Instantly, I was up to my waist in a crevasse. My reaction was a call for sanity. I had no back-up system and only a slight injury would put me out of the game. But another voice answered the first, suggesting I ignore the call for sanity. I chose to listen to the second voice and crossed the rest of the bridge. I was amazed at the determination I had. If I stopped now, I was letting doubt and uncertainty make decisions instead of logic and planning.

Entering the bowl rewarded my decision. What appeared to be an unmanageable crevasse actually had a simple snow bridge. I then had to deal with the wall above me. Refocusing my energy, I gained elevation rapidly. The complicated route I had chosen from the shoulder began to appear unfeasible. Again, I searched for a way up over the bergschrund. There was a possibility where the ’schrund split into two veins. There were two points on the 50° slope, about 40 meters apart horizontally, where each vein narrowed to a manageable meter-and-a-half break. I could see that a traverse along the lip of the bergschrund would take me to the narrowing of the lower vein. If I could get over the first break, I could traverse 40 meters to the left and deal with the second. From there it looked like a clear 55° slope to the base of the summit pyramid. Above, I knew I would have only one last bergschrund to cross.

After climbing to the lip of the enormous gap, I edged my way toward the veins fanning out to my left. Huge holes lay beneath me as I traversed. I concentrated on the climbing to avoid thinking of the exposure. I was in luck. I placed my axes in the firm ice and hauled myself up. Like several earlier passages, I knew I’d have to rappel this on the descent. Moving left was easy. With another move over the second vein, I was perched above the bergschrund. I could hardly believe it. The 55° face eased back and eventually I reached the summit cone. The last crevasse posed no problem. I crossed a long, slender bridge of ice with my hands gripping the top edge and my frontpoints on the face. I was doing things that I would have been reluctant to do with a solid belay at any other time. My desire to see this climb through was strong.

Fifteen minutes later, I was on top. There was little wind and not much cold. Clouds drifted across and obscured my view for a few minutes. I was amazed at standing alone on the summit. My watch read a few minutes after two o’clock. I sat and ate shortbread for strength. The south face of Shisha Pangma came into view. I appreciated those who had made quick ascents of it. Gurkarpo and Lengpo Kang emerged through the clouds.

I didn’t stay long. The climb down would take all my strength. If I made no mistakes finding the route past the nasty bergschrund, I could reach the 6400-meter shoulder before dark. I knew that frontpointing down the ridge would last long into the moonlit evening. It didn’t matter; I could go all night. “Slow and steady” would become my mantra until I reached the safety of my tent.

Descending the summit cone, I got confused and crossed a different snow bridge over the first crevasse. It would be easy to become disoriented looking for the twin veins. I followed my crampon indentations and came out exactly in the right spot above the ’schrund. The upper edge of the first vein came up suddenly under my feet as I descended facing in. I climbed up to a patch of ice to drive a screw for the first rappel. After the traverse right, the one snow stake I was carrying drove in firmly. My second short rappel went quickly.

I was back on the shoulder at four P.M. It had taken me five hours from there to the summit and back. With only a few hours of daylight left and fatigue tugging on every muscle, I started down with quiet resolve. Over and over, I repeated to myself that I could go on all night if need be. I reaped the benefit of old fixed lines, but I could not trust them to hold much weight. The sun dropped behind the horizon while I descended in a trance of activity. One set of frontpoints followed by another, two axe placements and a rest. Over and over into the darkness. I could eventually see light from the cook tent a mile below me on the glacier. I knew my friends had been watching me all day and were now worried. Thirst and hunger dominated my senses. I summoned the determination to continue without agonizing over my speed. It seemed like a journey without end.

By 9:45 P.M. I was descending the last meters of the triangular ice face. I stopped above the final 10-meter vertical wall, only minutes from my tent. I placed a screw and rappelled down. At 9:59,I was at my bivouac tent.

The next morning, I descended the ridge with the comfort of knowing I had negotiated that section earlier. To my utter surprise, in the notch where the west ridge ends in the col, Lhakpa Dorje stood waiting for me. He had come up from Base Camp early in the morning, knowing that I would descend and need a friend. It was one of those moments one never forgets: the coming together of two friends high on a Himalayan glacier. I hoped I would never climb a mountain by myself again.

Summary of Statistics:

Area: Jugal Himal, Nepal.

Solo Ascent: Dorje Lhakpa, 6966 meters, 22,854 feet, via west ridge, April

13, 1992 (Carlos Buhler)