American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Tibet, Nonjin Tanglha Central Peak, Ascent

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2002

Nonjin Tanglha Central Peak, ascent. Keith Affleck (UK), Kate Brown (Australia), and Liz Carr, Dan Mazur, and I (all US) traveled overland from Kathmandu to Lhasa. There, we met up with two Tibetan climbing assistants, Nwang and Penba, who were students of the Tibetan Mountaineering Association’s High-Altitude Training School. Our objective was the 7177m central peak of Nonjin Tanglha (a.k.a. Nyenchen Tanglha, Nyainqe Tanglha, Nianqing Tanggula: West Peak, 7126m: 91°E, 30°N). The appeal of a 7000m peak in Tibet is that most have never been climbed. Nonjin Tanglha only has a handful of successful summiteers. We would be the first team in two years to attempt the central peak and the only one in spring 2001. If successful, we would be the first climbers from our own countries to summit.

Obscure to most in the West, the Nonjin Tanglha mountain range rolls through the heart of Tibet just north of the Himalaya near the capital, Lhasa. This crown-like cluster of searing summits rises sharply from the shores of heavenly Lake Nam-tso. The local Tibetan herders bestow this monolithic white landmark with its edifying name, “God of the Grasslands.”

We established base camp on March 28 at the mouth of Banuco valley (4800m). The rivers were still frozen thick with ice, and vast, desolate rolling hills stretched endlessly. Inevitably, large numbers of herders (children, women, and men) emerged from nowhere, their small compounds of mud houses tucked over ridges just out of view. Tibetans threw paper offerings into the wind at a distant hermitage silhouetted against the dawn sky.

Through several shuttles of gear we set up ABC (5250m) among grazing yaks deep within Banuco valley at the base of a 6000m sheer-walled mini peak that masks the south-southwest face of Central Peak. Finding the route to Cl took several days and, unfortunately, we did not discover the most efficient route until making our descent. The best way is to walk up the valley west of the mini peak, then continue up steep, grassy slopes to a short-lived rocky moraine. From there walk back in an easterly direction up a small ravine to the glacier. Cl (5950m) lies in the saddle between the mini peak and the main face. The entire team was in Cl on April 11 having reached this point via a much more arduous traverse of the mini peak.

Most of the team fixed rope to C2 (6500m), from where we thought it would be a straight shot to the summit. Dan and I explored a route we had heard as a possibility but it led into a maze of crevasses. We descended by hugging the left or west side of the slope, skirting along cliffs that dropped for several thousand feet. Time was running out and bad weather arrived (these peaks have an intensely local and volatile weather system due to their proximity to Lake Nam-tso). We hunkered down in our Ozark tents.

On April 15, our last possible summit day, Kate, Liz, Nwang, Penba, Dan, and I headed out in uncertain conditions. Once beyond our previous high-point, Penba and I roped together and took the lead to find the route and place wands, crossing a large flat plateau of wind-blown snow dunes at 6,850m. This ended abruptly at a short 60- to 70-degree snow wall and the last section of fair slope below the summit. The rest of the team popped up at the far end of the plateau. Kate and Nwang continued slowly across the snow dunes while Dan and Liz had to descend. Keith was on the radio. He had left Cl and had only made it half way to ABC when he could not move anymore. A rescue was required. When Dan and Liz reached Keith, he was blue in the face and looked half dead due to dehydration and AMS.

Keith’s predicament was not known to the summit climbers, who were waiting in all-encompassing cloud. It soon became obvious that, although it was almost a whiteout, the weather was stable. Penba and I continued upward, reaching the summit with our last wand. Penba became the first Tibetan ever to summit Nonjin Tanglha and I the first American. On our descent we met Kate and Nwang just above the snow wall. Nwang turned around just 30 meters below the summit. Kate had made that heart-wrenching choice all climbers come to face sooner or later: If I make the summit I might not have the energy to go back down. Will I? What now?

I meticulously belayed Kate down, one rope length at a time, as she exhaustedly skirted the edges of cliffs, safely arriving at C2 by midnight. Dan, Liz, and Keith spent the night bivouacked in a storm above ABC. The two Tibetans hastily descended, reaching ABC by nightfall, having cleared a huge pack of gear off the mountain. As we reached base camp the following day our jeeps were waiting to drive us back to Lhasa.

Jon Otto, AAC

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