Asia, Tibet, Qionglai Shan, Gurla Range, Ascents and Other Activity

Publication Year: 1999.

Gurla Range, Ascents and Other Activity. Our team consisted of Tom Simons, Quinn Simons, Soren Peters and myself as guide. Our main objective was Gurla Mondata (7700m), the third-highest peak in Tibet, located in the west near the frontier with India and Nepal.

We flew to Lhasa in early September, 1997, where we spent a week making preparations and sightseeing. We did several hikes to acclimate, including an ascent of the sacred Gephel Ri (17,000+') above Drepung Monastery. In addition, we left Lhasa with a staff of Tibetans appointed by the Tibet Mountaineering Association: a liaison officer who couldn’t wait to get us home, an interpreter who couldn’t speak English, and three drivers. We also hired Kwang Tamang, a climber from Nepal, as our cook.

We spent a week on the road from Lhasa to Darchen, the town below Mt. Kailash. Here, the police were less than accommodating. They now charge foreigners a fee to do the sacred walk around the holy mountain, and were turning away poor pilgrims from India and Nepal who could not afford it. In addition, they told us our permit was no good, that we could only spend two days there, that we had to hire yaks and stay in guest houses at hugely inflated rates and generally pay them more money. I refused all of their demands.

While our staff stayed at Darchen, the four of us did the circuit around Mt. Kailash in five days. After crossing the Drolma La (18,600'), we took a detour and climbed a 6000-meter peak immediately east of Mt. Kailash. This peak was just south of another 6000-meter peak I had climbed in 1994 with Paula Quenomoen (1996 AAJ, p. 319). Back in Darchen, we met some Swiss climbers who were working in the area. They had climbed several peaks in the area as well. It should be noted that although Tibetans normally climb sacred mountains, there is a strong feeling among Tibetan climbers, pilgrims and even the TMA that people should not climb Mt. Kailash. Climbers, widespread disrespect for local peoples, cultures and environments are often cited as reasons for the ban. In the past, however, the Chinese government has issued permits for Mt. Kailash, and they certainly haven’t stopped collecting money from climbers who trash other sacred peaks, such as Mt. Everest.

From Darchen, it was a short drive to the Gurla range. We established Base Camp (4700m) on the banks of the Gurla Chu, just northwest of the main peak. Over the course of several days, the four of us made an Advanced Base Camp at 5700 meters, then a high camp at 6200 meters, directly below Gurla Mondata’s north face.

Directly north of Gurla Mondata is another peak; at 6900+ meters, it is certainly one of the highest peaks in west Tibet, yet overshadowed by the massif’s bulk to its south. We climbed this peak in three days round-trip from ABC. The first day we climbed gullies on the south face to reach the west ridge, which we climbed to 6300 meters. The next day we continued up the ridge to the summit, then returned to our bivy. On the third day we descended to ABC. It was an easy but exposed route; the main difficulties were breaking trail in crusty snow.

To the northeast of Gurla Mondata is Guna La, an even finer peak, also quite high (6900m). This we did next. From our high camp, we climbed over a pass and down to a huge glacial plateau, which we crossed, then made camp at the base of the peak. Feeling fit and acclimated, we got up in the middle of the night, climbed the southwest ridge to the summit and back to camp in a single push. We had a perfect day on a beautiful route, with some exposure and only moderate difficulties. We also got a good look at Gurla Mondata that enabled us to pick out a route.

We descended to Base Camp for several days of rest. Tom had decided not to join us on this climb, but when we headed back up the hill he came along to high camp with us to carry down gear we wouldn’t be taking higher up. Quinn, Soren and I began the climb by crossing the glacier from high camp and heading directly up the great white slope of Gurla Mondata’s north face. Wind and snow forced an early bivy under a serac at 6500 meters. The next day was clear, though, and we headed up. Alternating the lead often, we climbed slowly but steadily through the night until the next morning. We rested for a long while, then continued on to a bivy spot at 7500 meters, 100 meters below the summit plateau. Quinn was slowing a bit, so we took a rest day here, with the intention of then blasting to the summit and down the long but easy west ridge, which would dump us at Base Camp. Quinn improved somewhat, but the weather didn’t: high winds and blowing snow kept us at camp another day. The wind turned out to be a blessing after all—it blew away a lot of loose snow, and when it died, conditions were better than ever.

Soren led, belaying just below the summit ridge. While he belayed Quinn, I went on ahead toward the top. Unfortunately, Quinn got frostbite on his hands and could not complete the pitch. I descended to Quinn and Soren lowered us both back to our bivy. The next day we began the descent of the route we had just climbed. Descending the route was easier than anticipated, and with Quinn in the lead we made rapid progress.

At about 6800 meters, though, things went wrong—someone fell, then we all fell roped together. We slid down the steep slope, then launched over a giant serac, falling over 300 feet through the air. One thousand five hundred feet after it began, we cratered. Soren and Quinn were dazed but unhurt in the fall, but I wrenched my leg and could barely walk. We bivied in the crater, then the next day Soren led Quinn and me down to the glacier, where we bivied again. The next day they took off for help while I suffered alone. Soren arrived that day at Base Camp; Kwang went up and found Quinn. They arrived at Base Camp late that night. Kwang turned right around the next morning, and with two local yak herders he had recruited, helped me down that day. With Tom now in the lead, Base Camp was quickly dismantled and we hit the road for Kathmandu and home.

Charlie Fowler, unaffiliated