The Khumbu Express
Two Himalayan solos in 12 days, on Cholatse and Tawoche, Nepal
I have recently climbed a variety of mountains and routes solo. This type of climbing fascinates me
because of the deep and powerful experiences you can get only when forced to live in the present moment. Before leaving for Nepal, I soloed long rock routes, spent time at the crags, ascended frozen waterfalls, and climbed the north face of the Eiger in winter.
Even so, I was unsure if I was ready to handle the pressure of the Himalaya, because it’s an entirely different environment from what I was familiar with. Up there, no one could come to my rescue. My goal was to solo three big faces in one short season—the Khumbu Express.
Pictures from the fall show lots of snow and ice on Cholatse’s north face; in such conditions the face should be climbable in 24 hours. When I arrive, however, I notice that a lot more rock is visible than in my picture, which makes for more interesting climbing!
I decide to take my sleeping bag, but my gear still has to be minimized. Without a partner you end up with twice the weight, and in climbing every kilogram counts. One thing is clear: with the equipment I’m taking, I will be unable to rappel from the upper half of the face. It’s a one-way street over the summit and back down the south side. Ten stoppers, the same number of pitons, four ice screws, four quickdraws, five spare carabiners, one meal of spaghetti, and four Powerbars. A nice diet.…
At 3 a.m. on April 14, I get out of my warm sleeping bag at base camp. It’s slightly unsettling to walk into the dark night. At daybreak I reach my cache at the base of the face. The wall rises steeply above me into the morning sky. I begin to climb and immediately find myself in a meditative state. Focused on climbing in the absolute present, I suppress all thoughts of what could lie ahead.
Pitch after pitch I move upward, belaying frequently in this sketchy and steep terrain. A blend of mixed rock and ice provides a nice variety of climbing, and I feel like I’m flying up the face. It’s 11 a.m. when I reach the first couloir, a few hundred meters of pure ice. I drag the rope behind me like a long tail.
Slowly night descends. Exhausted, I stay on the lookout for a suitable bivouac site. At 6,000 meters I find a small cornice with a cave. Small but nice! I fall asleep as I’m cooking, and half the spaghetti ends up in my sleeping bag. The instant coffee tastes terrible.
Now come the hard hours as I try to sleep. The vulnerability won’t leave my thoughts in peace. What if I break a hand or ram a crampon into my calf? The briefest lapse of focus could have lethal consequences. The darkness in my snow hole is depressing, yet somehow I manage to sleep.
In the morning the journey continues—450 meters remain to be climbed. My psyche is once again in better shape, but my muscles are not as fresh as they were yesterday. The face shows its ugliest side. Not quite as steep, but my ice tools cut right through the packed snow. That means careful footwork! Protection is nonexistent in this terrain. For the first time I contemplate retreat. But how would I do that? There is no way with this little gear. There’s only one direction to go! Hours later I reach the summit ridge. Now you’ve made it, I think. But then I spot the largest cornices and mushrooms I have ever seen. Over there I see the flat south ridge—I wish I could be there.
A crevasse in the ridge blocks the way to the summit 50 meters before the top. The crevasse is deep, and the mountain drops 1,500 meters on both sides of the ridge. I dig deep and take a step across. I’m wedged in the crevasse as if it were a big chimney. The lip of the crevasse on the other side is now two meters above me. Somehow my ice tools must find purchase. I try a few different spots. Finally I dare to make the move and pull myself over the lip. My heart is pumping and I’m out of breath. Ten minutes later I’m on the summit. Tension flows from my body as I relax.
The long descent lies ahead. Fog starts to envelop the mountain, and I’m not familiar with the south ridge. But onward! In the fading light I spot the flat glacier below me. That’s where I want to bivy. In my mind I feel like I’m already there. There I will be able to unfold my sleeping bag and take off my harness—no need to tie in anywhere. I start to rappel.
It is already pitch black. I look for a crack for my final anchor. Down I go. The rope just makes it down to the glacier. I’ve used all my gear to get down, but that’s practical—less stuff to haul tomorrow.
I feel more at ease at the second bivy. Unfortunately, I have nothing left to eat. I drink some warm water. That’s better than nothing.
A 5,000-meter pass stands between me and base camp. My legs are like Jell-O, but slowly and surely I’m getting closer. At Chola Pass I ask the first trekker I see for something to eat. He gives me a Twix. After three days with so little food it tastes revolting, but I eat it. After eight hours of trekking I reach base camp. Content with the first solo ascent of Cholatse, I drink real coffee made from my espresso machine.
On April 22 I find myself at the bottom of the rocky east face of Tawoche. I have everything with me—a portaledge, food for nine days, and a bunch of other gear. The morning sun bathes the face from 6 a.m. until 11. It’s quite warm, and the wall roars to life. Ice fall, rockfall, and spindrift. Giant blocks tumble down the face. At noon I decide to descend. This route is suicidal. A short while later I reach my friends in base camp.
I scan the face with binoculars for a safer line. On the left side I spot a nice-looking ice line. Not too difficult, but beautiful. I change my plans and pack my bag for this new line. It’s been seven years since the last team stood on the summit of Tawoche. I’m motivated to give this peak a try.
The weather is very unstable. I wake up each night at 11 to look outside my tent. Fog, snow.…
On April 24 I notice a starry sky with just a few scattered clouds. I have to go for it. I leave my 5,020-meter base camp at 11:30 p.m. I have one 20-meter, 5mm Kevlar rope and three ice screws. I feel the benefits of my “acclimatization climb” on Cholatse. Except for the final part of the route, the terrain is between 50 and 60 degrees. Huge seracs rise above me toward the top. I climb several pitches of vertical ice without any protection. At 4 a.m. I find myself on the summit. Four and a half hours for the first solo ascent of Tawoche, by a possible new route. It’s cold, so I immediately begin the descent.
I reach base camp at 8 a.m., just in time for breakfast.
On to Ama Dablam, with my last permit and my liaison officer in tow. The weather stubbornly remains unstable, with constant snow showers. With my time running out I begin the northwest face on May 3. The weather is actually good. But quickly, around noon, the curtain closes again. It begins to snow lightly. I feel good and keep climbing; the ice is hard and the rock quite good.
The steep ramp beyond the glacier plateau is impressive. I place protection for pitch after pitch. The small avalanches and spindrift continue to grow in strength. I turn around just below the crux pitch (according to Tomaz Humar, who pioneered this route). It is too dangerous for me. In the bergschrund at the edge of the glacier plateau, I’m safe from the avalanches. It snows all night. In the morning I use a short break in the weather to return safely to base camp. The wall is covered in snow and the weather is terrible.
After a few more days at the bottom of the face, I decide to depart. It’s a difficult decision, but the conditions are simply too dangerous.
Content, I return to Switzerland.
Area: Khumbu Region, Nepal
Routes: North face of Cholatse (6,440 meters) via a direct variant to the French Route (1995) and the 2003 Korean attempt (1,400m, V+ M6 90°), Ueli Steck, solo, April 14-16, 2005. East-southeast face of Tawoche (a.k.a. Taboche, 6,495 meters) via a possible new route (1,500m, M5 50°-60°), Ueli Steck, solo, April 24-25, 2005. Northwest face of Ama Dablam (6,814 meters) via the Furlan-Fumar Route (1,650m, V+ A2+ 90°), Ueli Steck, solo attempt to 5,900 meters, May 3-4,2005.
A Note About the Author:
Born in 1976, Ueli Steck is a carpenter turned professional alpinist who lives near Interlaken, Switzerland. He has climbed new routes on Pumori (2001), Mt. Dickey (2002), and the Eiger (2001), and he made two attempts on the north face of jannu. In 2004, with Stefan Siegrist, he linked the north faces of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau in 25 hours of climbing.