“Technical wading” to an unclimbed summit in Eastern Tibet.
Chris Watts and I peered out the window of our hotel in the town of Nagchu, Tibet. The temperature hovered stubbornly below freezing, and a dusting of snow blew around the courtyard. It was October 17, still a few months to go before winter. At 6,447 meters, the summit of Kajaqiao, the mountain we had come to climb, was 2,000 meters higher than this. What would the conditions be like up there, we wondered?
Kajaqiao is situated in the Nyainqentanglha East Range, about two days’ drive east of Lhasa. This is officially a closed part of Tibet, and numerous permits are required to secure access. Permits tend not to be issued until the last minute, with the result that visits entail a fair bit of pre-trip anxiety. In 2004, it was not until 17 hours before our flight was due to leave London that we finally had to acknowledge that we had failed on the bureaucratic challenge.
But we persevered and now, armed with nine separate permits, we kept our fingers crossed that no bureaucrat would stand in our way.
A photograph taken by the Japanese explorer Tamotsu (Tom) Nakamura first gave Chris and me the irrepressible urge to visit this part of the world. Not only did the mountains look fantastic, but Tibet had long been on my list of places to visit. Adam Thomas and Phil Amos were among the select group of westerners who had traveled to Eastern Tibet, and their enthusiasm for a return visit was such that we readily decided to team up. And so, after a year and a half of bureaucratic challenges, the four of us, together with Jimi, our liaison officer, and Tenzing, from the China Tibet Mountaineering Association (CTMA), were on our way. In the meantime, Tom, in his characteristically helpful manner, had forwarded detailed maps and photographs from earlier Japanese expeditions.
The 250 kilometers of dirt track from Nagchu to the regional center of Lhari was notable for wild scenery, yaks, and building my respect for four-wheel-drive vehicles. We had reason to believe that Lhari could be the bureaucratic crux, so we kept our fingers crossed as a stern- looking policeman peered closely at our paperwork. He appeared mystified, but to our relief I left clutching a letter asking the headman of Tatse, the last village, to arrange for our equipment to be carried to our base camp.
Some 35 kilometers from Lhari, the village of Tatse sits on meadows above the beautiful Yigong Tsangpo River. Young villagers were friendly and very interested in what we were planning to do. They told us that Kajaqiao is pronounced Chachacho and that the mountain was named after its likeness to hands drawn together in prayer. An elderly woman expressed concern that it would snow forever if anyone ever stood on the summit.
“I think 10 porters will be enough,” announced Tenzing.
We looked around at the enormous amount of gear that Tenzing and Jimi had brought. There were huge gas cylinders, a marquee-style tent, several large yak steaks, crates of beer… and on it went. Ten porters seemed ridiculously inadequate.
Tenzing clearly recognized the look of concern on our faces. “We will have base camp here,” he reassured us, pointing to the meadows next to the river. This was all very curious. With security in mind, we had specifically made clear that Tenzing and Jimi would be staying at our base camp. Something had clearly been lost in the translation, but there wasn’t much we could do about it now. CTMA policy, it seemed, was to establish base camp at the roadside wherever possible.
The porters arrived on motorbikes, a first in my experience. They roared away on their bikes with us trailing far behind. After six hours or so, we arrived at the site of the base camp used by the Japanese. The only evidence of their expedition was rudimentary tent platforms, which we gratefully occupied.
We awoke to perhaps 25 centimeters of snow. It was considerably colder that we expected, to the extent that the eggs the porters had caringly carried had frozen solid and were to stay that way for the duration.
Our acclimatization explorations revealed that the head of the valley was dominated by two mountains, Kajaqiao at 6,447 meters and Menamcho at 6,264 meters. Both looked inspirational but seriously snow plastered. The amount of snow was a real concern. By the time we were ready to attempt an ascent, a meter of new snow had fallen. This wouldn’t have been so bad with plenty of freeze and thaw, but with the temperature continually below freezing the snow simply accumulated as deep powder. With no snowshoes, traveling around was absolutely knackering.
Bad weather and deep snow slowed us to the extent that it took two days of heavy panting to get from base camp to the foot of our chosen line at about 5,300 meters on Kajaqiao. Clouds had prevented us from getting a good view when we were acclimatizing, but now we could see that the west face sported a series of shallow, left-trending couloirs leading up to the crest of the northwest ridge.
Perched on the crest of a projecting rib of rounded slabs, we managed to cut a comfortable tent-sized platform for our first bivouac. The day had been exhausting, largely because of the vast amounts of soft snow. Technical wading, the best way to describe it, is not my favorite style of climbing. But at least we were making progress. As the evening sun bathed us we relaxed and soaked up the view. The skyline to the west was opening up with a myriad of unclimbed, toothlike peaks.
Above, it was steeper, good in that the deep snow that had plagued us so far would not stick. The problem, though, was that sections that looked easy were in fact granite slabs covered with a thick dusting of powder. We proceeded cautiously. Nothing was particularly difficult, but it all felt horribly precarious and insecure. At one point I was reduced to a gibbering “watch me” call on ground where we would have moved together if the snow had been nicely frozen. By dint of judicious routefinding we progressed safely, if slowly, ending with an open bivouac on the left-bounding rib of the main couloir line.
“This is a crap bivouac ledge,” announced Chris emphatically.
Chris’ comment was disturbingly apt. There was nothing for it but to fashion a narrow, nose-to-tail ledge out of a thin snow band.
Fortunately, the clouds that had swirled around for much of the day had lifted, and a glorious evening had developed.
Some hours later I awoke with a start. I had been wrapped cozily in the tent fabric, but now it was billowing around me like a huge sail and spindrift was blowing into my sleeping bag. Moving too hastily to rewrap myself resulted in my end of the ledge collapsing and me spending the rest of the night perched uncomfortably on the remains. Chris woke briefly to curse the spindrift runnel pouring onto his head before settling down and snoring loudly. By daybreak I had given him a good kicking on several occasions with no positive response.
Experience and determination are probably the key factors that dictate success or failure in the greater ranges. At the bleak and windy break of dawn, both were tested to the full, and we made a hesitant and weary team as we scrabbled and dithered over the best line. This sort of climbing is so difficult to grade and describe. Above we could see that the angle increased slightly, which could make things much more difficult. But mountains are nothing if not surprising, for the steeper ground was closer to the windswept ridge and the conditions actually improved. Able to move faster, by afternoon we were enduring a character-building crosswind on the ridge. On the windward side the wind was fierce and the ground technical, whereas on the lee side excitingly steep powder snow presented its fair share of problems. We alternated uncomfortably, reaching an easing of the angle an hour before nightfall.
“Time for a snow hole,” Chris shouted above the sound of the roaring wind.
Snow holes have always distressed me. Perhaps it’s because I have never had the time to dig out a nice, spacious one. Or perhaps I have latent claustrophobic tendencies that surface only when I am surrounded by snow. Chris, though, had such enthusiasm that I found myself reluctantly digging into the slope. Inevitably, snow ended up inside my clothing and I became damp. The calm atmosphere in the hole was encouraging, though. After an hour Chris pronounced it big enough, produced his sleeping gear, and settled down. I peered in. Length and width looked okay, but the height of our little room was only about 40 centimeters. Hesitantly, I decided to test my feelings before committing myself. It felt awful. A quick bit of experimenting revealed that even the weedy Fowler shoulders were broad enough to dislodge copious quantities of snow when I turned over. The snow fell in my face and down my neck. I was beginning to feel really cold.
“No way. Sorry, Chris. Can’t do it.”
For me, the last hour had been a complete waste of energy. I now felt an immediate need to arrange something safe; otherwise matters might go horribly wrong. Chris, who appeared very comfortable with the snow hole, was understanding. In the dark we struggled against the wind to erect the tent. After 15 minutes we sat in the flapping fabric together. The hastily stamped-out snow platform was ludicrously uneven, and the outer edge overhung the slope.
“Sorry, Mick. Can’t sleep here.”
Laughably, Chris ended up in the snow hole with me outside in the tent. Fortunately, the wind seemed to have dropped slightly, and my initial concerns about being blown away without Chris’ weight lessened.
One section of the tent ledge was shaped like a small volcano, and I curled myself around this in as comfortable a manner as possible. For a few hours all was well. Then, when I must have been half asleep, I had the awful sensation of my small volcano erupting. All hell let loose and then my face was planted firmly into something hard and cold. Fortunately I had a small torch around my neck, the light from which revealed that the tent was now upside down and the cold hard things against my face were the crossed poles that are normally at the top. My immediate urge was to escape, but a few things had priority. Jumping out only to watch the whole show blow away would not be clever. While I was putting my boots on I came across Chris’ inner boots. This was worrisome. He must have put only his outer boots on to return to the snow hole. But where was he now? Clearly the tent had been hit by a snow slide, but what had happened to the snow hole? If it was damaged he would certainly need his inner boots. Having located the entrance zip, I stood on the tent fabric, cursed the situation that had ended up with us sleeping apart, and scoured the slope for signs of the hole. The narrow beam picked out nothing but windswept snow. Securing things as best I could, I started to search for the entrance. I had taken only a few steps when a surprisingly loud and urgent shout stopped me in my tracks.
“Fowler! Fowler! I’m stuck! Fucking well get me out of here!”
A section of the cave had collapsed, leaving Chris disoriented and partially smothered. It was easy to grab his extended hand and pull him to safety, but it turned my stomach just to look in at the partially collapsed low roof. In the confusion Chris had been unable to find his head torch. I could only imagine how terrifying it must have been milling around in the dark in such constricted circumstances, aware that further collapses were possible.
Together we retrieved items from the remains of the cave, dug out the tent, put it the right way up, and squeezed inside. It was good to be back together again. Remarkably, nothing appeared to be lost or damaged. It was light by now, and I was uncomfortably aware that the hours had slipped past quickly. The wind seemed stronger than ever, we were in a cloud, and it was one of those situations where a negative decision could come all too easily. We decided to contemplate our fate over a hot drink and half a chocolate bar. In the end we recognized that nothing was really wrong apart from frayed nerves and the weather. Onward it would be.
The north (lee) side of the ridge was composed of frighteningly steep, bottomless powder that appeared to defy gravity. This meant that we were forced onto the rocky crest, which was technically challenging and outrageously windy. Nevertheless, clearings in the cloud cover showed that we were making progress. By midafternoon nearby Menamcho was below us, and we knew we were close. At about 6,300 meters my camera ran out of film. The wind and spindrift were such that changing the roll was out of the question. Fortunately, for the first time ever I had packed a cheap, lightweight spare camera.
It was with some relief that I completed the final section of wind-blasted technical mixed climbing and hung from a small but secure nut belay. Above me, overhanging snow protected the summit snow/ice slope. We were nearly there.
Our altimeter read 6,500 meters as the slope started to ease off. The highest point was still about six meters above us, but huge cornices were visible on the other side, and we had that uncomfortable feeling that we were close to the breaking point. It was past six in the evening. The skies had cleared a little on the final section, and I had been looking forward to a glorious panoramic view.
In fact, the views were obscured by the cornices and clouds. And the wind still howled incessantly. My hopes for indulging in photographic frenzy were dashed as I fought to hold the camera still while taking shots that I instinctively knew were destined to be blurred and unremarkable. After not very long at all we retreated to our last ice screw and abseiled into the gathering gloom.
An exciting bivouac was followed by three days of abseiling, avalanche dodging, and serious wading to rejoin Adam and Phil at base camp. They had reached about 5,800 meters on Menamcho but had been stopped by the wild weather and low temperatures. But they were still smiling. Exciting mountains have that affect on people.
Chris and I also felt great. Excess blubber had been used up, and Kajaqiao, our objective of two years, was climbed. And with the cornice tip untouched we slept comfortably, knowing that the old lady in Tatse would be happy to know that it wouldn’t snow forever.
Area: Nyainqentanglha East Range, Eastern Tibet
Ascent: First ascent of 6,447-meter Kajaqiao (a.k.a. Chachacho), via the west face and northwest ridge (1,110m, TD), Mick Fowler and Chris Watts, October 2005. See Climbs and Expeditions in this journal for an account of the Amos-Thomas attempt on Menamcho.
Editor’s Note: The photo in AAJ 2003, p. 134, which also appeared on the front cover of the Japanese Alpine News Vol. 2 (2002), shows Menamcho (a.k.a. Chakucho), not Kajaqiao as captioned.
A Note About the Author:
Mick Fowler’s urge for first ascents has led him from crumbling Devon sea cliffs to unclimbed 6,000- and 7,000-meter peaks in Asia. He lives in South Derbyshire, England.