American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

An Optimistic Plan

  • Feature Article
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2003

An Optimistic Plan

A series of new routes in Tibet, in preparation for climbing Gyachung Kang, ends when Mike Bearzi slips during the descent from the north face of Ngozumpa Kang II.

Bruce Miller

“Not a good place to be a yak,” said Mike, accurately summing up the scene. Mike Bearzi and I were adding three more tents to the hundred-plus already set up at Everest’s North Face base camp. It was mid-April and half of those sat empty, since many of the North Ridge hopefuls had already moved up-valley to their advanced base camp. Dozens more were on their way, filtering out of camp with yaks in tow, while trucks unloaded heaps of gear for yet another group of North Ridgers. Mike wasn’t too surprised that our diminutive expedition was distinct from the others, and it wasn’t because our yaks would be any less burdened (they would be the only ones carrying bouldering slippers and chalkbags). What set us apart, indeed our only significant weight savings, was the smaller amount of mental baggage we were carrying.

Mike and I had the optimistic plan of making a first ascent on a peak 22 kilometers northwest of Everest: The northeast face of Gyachung Kang. Mike had spotted this ignored facet of the prominent 7,952-meter peak on an earlier Everest trip and had filed away a photo of it for a few years until we started talking. From our first discussions, the assumption was always that this was something we could pull off alpine-style. While that sort of thing isn’t common, I’d seen enough Himalayan alpine-style success stories since Messner and Habeler flashed the northwest face of Hidden Peak in 1975 to demystify it. Success depended more often on patient pre-route acclimatization, blue-collar alpine skills, and minimizing weight, than on mutant, high-altitude physiology, M-climbing specialization, or a willingness to lose toes. Unlike me, Mike had come to these same conclusions at 8,000 meters, not over coffee at Dot’s Diner, which made him an ideal partner. I brought some good experience to the table (all sub-6,200 meters) that complemented Mike’s, but neither one of us were part of alpine climbing’s killer elite. We didn’t think that’s what it would take.

We had planned on approaching up the Rongto Glacier, which flows directly from the northeast face of Gyachung Kang and ends above Everest’s North Face base camp to the west. A couple of days after we arrived we went on an ankle-twisting reconnaissance of the Rongto and dismissed it as yak-impassable. The following day we happily shifted down-valley and committed to the longer option outlined by the omnipresent Marko Prezelj (member: killer elite) back in Kathmandu. Marko had been part of a strong Slovene expedition that climbed the north face in 1999. Their ascent represented the complete history of climbing on the Tibetan side of the mountain.

We spent the next couple weeks of dodgy weather eating our sirdar Namgyol’s excellent greasy cooking, shuffling gear, stumbling over the talus-strewn glacier, and wrestling with Mike’s and my respective sinus and stomach troubles. We finally arrived at the base of Gyachung Kang to scope our proposed route on May 2. Mike’s oblique telephoto of the northeast face (the photo we’d planned our trip on) left some room for doubt as to the possible quality of our route, but standing below the face our doubts were erased. Despite the face being spanned by vertical bands of Canadian Rockies-style horizontal strata, we were able to piece together a continuous, albeit difficult-looking, ice line.

With advanced base camp (6,300 meters) established we made the long stumble back to our base camp (5,700 meters), but not before making the first ascents of Jiuda Ri (6,711 meters) and Peak 6600 by an east-west traverse. Also, I earlier soloed the probable first ascent of Peak 6190 by a north-south traverse and made the first ascent of the west ridge of Peak 6271, each roundtrip from BC. All of this activity fell into the moderate snow and ice/5.4 category.

The next objective was certainly more than we needed to further acclimatize, but the dogleg couloir on Peak 7646 (Schnieder map) was absolutely the line on the serrated ridge between Gyachung Kang and Cho Oyu. I’d lost the guidebook, and we didn’t know we were looking at Ngozumpa Kang II or that a more accurate survey puts it at 7,743 meters. We didn’t even know if the peak had been climbed (it had been—first ascent by Pemba Tenzing and Naomi Uemura from Nepal in 1965). I thought it might be too steep for us to really move quickly on, but Mike convinced me otherwise and he was right.

At about noon on May 8, after a day and a half approach, we climbed one steep ice pitch over the bergschrund at 6,400 meters. The rest of the day we climbed single and simul-pitches of consistent 55° ice. Not exactly easy, as we neared 7,000 meters wearing packs weighed down with bivy gear, but certainly not extreme. We were actually enjoying ourselves. Even that night wasn’t too bad in our summer bags and bivy sacks; no sleep, but no headaches either, just hours of massaging our toes.

Constant spindrift the next morning kept us struggling with the stove until the sun was well up. All we managed to coax out was a meager couple of quarts of water for the day. When we finally got going, we left all of our bivouac gear and one of our ropes. We never even tied into the rope we did bring. As the couloir necked down above, the angle eased off a few degrees, and the ice turned to snow. The main difficulties were simply in maintaining our pace as steps collapsed.

That sort of oxygen-deprived, quad-burning snow climbing isn’t my forte. We were both moving slowly, even when following in the other’s tracks. I told Mike, “We can always turn around at the final headwall if it gets too late.” But I wasn’t really talking to Mike. I was talking to the skeptic in me, playing a practiced con that keeps the part of me that’s pointing down, going up. I had no intention of turning around, whatever the hour, as long as the weather held.

When the final headwall, a black triangle of rock, at last appeared to be getting closer, I pushed hard for 200 meters to its base. The faint diagonal weakness I’d been shooting for thankfully turned out to be a 60° ice gully. I kicked out a stance and got my camera out to take a photo of Mike coming up. Somehow, as I pulled my glove off, I managed to yank the sewn-in liner inside out from the shell, while it remained attached at the wrist. I spent the next 15 frantic minutes dealing with a topology problem too complex for my altitude-addled brain. I finally had to rip a couple fingers off the liner with my teeth to get my frozen digits back in the shell.

When Mike arrived I grabbed my down jacket out of our one otherwise empty pack. While I restored a modicum of finger function, I realized Mike was suffering, but not from any serious altitude symptoms. It occurred to me later, looking at my summit self-portraits, that Mike was probably thinking the same thing about me. Anyway, we were each convincing enough that with three hours of daylight left I started into the crux snow and ice of the day.

The gully opened up into a small bowl overhung with cornices. Sneaking through this last obstacle involved shaft planting up snow that approached vertical, followed by a few rock moves, and then I was on the summit ridge. Ambition had taken me that far, but as I approached the summit I didn’t care about what we’d done or that our optimistic plan was now a realistic next step. I was too cold, tired, and anxious for ambition. A more essential drive was at work. I stopped a few meters short of the summit cornice and was dimly appreciative of the sun setting on the roof of the world. I was, however, acutely aware that the top of Ngozumpa Kang II wouldn’t be a good place to actually watch the sun set.

I fumbled with taking photos of Gyachung Kang and Everest to the east and Cho Oyu to the west. My middle finger still hadn’t come back. Where was Mike? I’d hoped to stand on the summit with him, but it was definitely time to go down. I descended to above the steep bowl and started setting up a rap anchor in some chossy rock. I was struck with the fragility of our position as I watched Mike coming up the last part of that bowl. I told Mike we’d made it but he didn’t take the “out,” and continued to the summit. Twenty minutes later he was back and I was more than ready.

We alternately rapped and down-climbed to the base of the headwall. Extremely relieved to be back on the snowslopes that had so exhausted us on coming up, I was imagining us in our sleeping bags before dark. After less than an hour of rapid down- climbing, with tools plowing parallel tracks through the snow as I descended, I was within 100 meters of our bivouac. Mike was about that same distance above me, possibly facing out as I had, in the lowest-angled (40°) section of the entire route, when I heard his shout. I looked up in time to see him spinning over my head. He covered the next couple of hundred meters in a few bounces and disappeared over the vertical rock and ice we’d avoided on the way up. In those few seconds I went from total disbelief to almost equal certainty that Mike was dead.

I downclimbed below our bivouac on the one-in-a-million chance Mike had hung up down there, out of sight. But I was wasted, groveling in the dark on ice again, and I finally had to give up. I climbed back to the bivouac, crawled into my now-frozen lump of a bag, and made a cup of tea.

“You found that he was dead; you made a cup of tea?” said Frietag. Frietag? It was Frietag, from The Eiger Sanction. He was the first of a few visitors I had that night. They kept the more serious craziness of losing my friend at bay. I still had a lot to do right to get down okay.

At last the sun hit and I started rapping the remainder of the face on V-threads. I kept looking across at Mike’s fall line for some sign of him. It wasn’t until I was nearly down that I could see that, of course, he’d gone all the way to the glacier. In an accident as unlikely as my ridiculous glove episode, Mike had somehow pulled our expedition inside out. One of us dying was always a possibility we’d kept neatly tucked away. But there it was, yanked out, just one of the possibilities that was exposed to me on Ngozumpa Kang II.

Summary of statistics:

Area: Tibet Ascents: First ascent of the north face of Ngozumpa Kang II (7,743m). Mike Bearzi and Bruce Miller.

Also: First ascents of Jiuda Ri (6,71lm) and Peak 6600 by an east-west traverse. Probable first ascent (solo) of Peak 6190 by a north-south traverse and first ascent (solo) of the west ridge of Peak 6271, each roundtrip from BC. All were moderate snow and ice with 5.4 rock.

A Note On the Author

Bruce Miller, 39, lives a couple of miles down the road from Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon with his soon-to-be wife, Michelle, and stepson, Satchel. Working as a carpenter the last several years has allowed him to put significant energy into climbing in Alaska, Patagonia, and the Himalaya. However, he most enjoys cragging with his friends on the Diamond or in his backyard, where he learned to climb 20 years ago.

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