Drangang Ri, second ascent, by a new route; Ripimo Shar, possible new route; Chekigo, first authorized ascent. The goals of the Academic Alpine Club Zurich expedition to the Rolwaling were Drangnag Ri (6,757m) and Chekigo (6,257m). The team members were I (Scottish, leader), Oliver von Rotz (Swiss, deputy), Monika Hronska (Swiss, medic), Paul Hartmann (U.S.). Beatriz Vidondo (Spanish), and Marco Scarsi (Italian). We were joined by the incomparable Dhan Kumar as sirdar/cook and the equally hard-working Phule as assistant. The final “member,” our liaison officer, accompanied the expedition as far as the roadhead at Dolakha, doing a good job only as a living example of the corrupt and clueless Nepalese ruling classes. He had never been out of Kathmandu and was dumbfounded by the sight of our porters gearing up: “Are they really going to carry that?”
Our first breakfast on the trail was disturbed by local Maoist rebels, one carrying a concealed revolver, who asked for 3,000Rs per foreigner to enter an area they controlled; we paid 2,000Rs ($28) each in exchange for a stamped chit authorizing our presence. The rebels also made good stereotypes of their role: Nepalese society’s bottom-feeders who have found an easier living in threats than in work. The trek took us from the rushing blue waters of the Bhote Kosi under the ramparts of Gaurishankar and into the Sherpa region of the upper Rolwaling. At the natural dam of the Tsho Rolpa we turned north along the lateral moraine of the Ripimo Shar Glacier, and on April 24 found an acceptable site for base camp at Drangnak Kharka (4,900m). Directly above base lie Pk. 5,946m and Kang Nachugo, while across the glacier are the commanding bulk of Chobutse, the fluted peak of Dragkar Go, Pk. 6,665m, and other 6,000m points leading north to Drangnag Ri.
Unstable weather plagued our acclimatization, and a vanguard needed showshoes to reconnoiter up-glacier. Oliver and I, then Oliver and Paul, carried loads to a dump at 5,300m, before Paul and I established an advanced base, on April 30, at 5,500m on the Ripimo Shar Glacier, below the west face of Drangnag Ri. On May 1 we crossed the upper glacier to the snow dome of Pk. 5,965m, scoring the expedition’s first summit but seeing nothing in the clouds.
The other four climbers later reached advanced base and enjoyed a beautiful day on Pk. 5,965m, with impressive views of Drangnag Ri, Pk. 6,705m, Menlungtse, and Kang Nachugo. Paul and I tried the west ridge of Pk. 6,705m, also referred to as Ripimo Shar, turning back in a whiteout at 6,500m. At base camp we planned strategy. The southwest ridge of Drangnag Ri was in much worse condition than in pictures we’d seen, and the north side was similarly impassable. Paul and I were the only takers for the technical difficulties of its west face.
Oliver and I started the summit campaign on May 7, with the west ridge of Ripimo Shar, enjoying spectacular sunrise views of Menlungtse and Cho Oyu. The “climbing” was mostly deep trail-breaking. Rising cumulus beat us to the summit, but there was no afternoon snow. The next day was cloudless, as Paul and I readied ourselves in advanced base.
The triangular west face of Drangnag Ri has a central buttress of pink granitic rock. The left side is heavily serac-hung, and the right is fluted and cornice-hung. The safest route skirts the rock on its right. By sun-up we had crossed the snowfield below the buttress and were tackling four mixed pitches, the last a full ropelength of high-quality 80° ice. Beyond were more ice gullies and a soft-snow traverse, leading into a dripping but refreezing exit couloir, where night fell. At the top the ice turned to impassable meringue, and I fell 20m, landing back beside Paul, fortunately without injuring either of us. We found a crawl-through crevasse in a neighboring fluting and settled inside for a bivouac.
The weather next morning was perfect, but Paul had severe leg cramps and decided he wasn’t going anywhere. However, we couldn’t descend before dark, so I picked my way cautiously to, and then along, the convoluted ridge, across a snowfield, and onto the summit crest. Clouds blew in from the west but cleared partially as I reached the top, at 4 p.m. on May 10.I had excellent views of the Rolwaling and Khumbu. I retraced my steps, avoided the ridge by climbing down 60° ice on its east side, and was back at the cave by nightfall. Leaving at midnight, we made 15 rappels down our route to the lower snowfield and were back in base by evening.
Unstable weather returned as we moved to our final project, a lightweight attempt on Chekigo. Now well acclimatized, Monika, Oliver, and I hiked to a new base camp at 5,000m, arriving in a snowstorm. The next day we climbed the glacier, to be engulfed in a blizzard near the Manlung La (5,600m). The morning brought clear skies on a north wind, and we headed for the direct west face. Monika lacked the confidence to solo the exposed approach ridge, turning back to wait at high camp. Oliver and I wallowed into the snow bowl below the face, then climbed eight pitches of straightforward 55° ice/névé. We completed the first recorded ascent at 2:30 p.m. on May 15, behind returning cumulus. Our rappel descent was efficient and the walk-out quick, trading the narrow ridge for a sprint down a serac-threatened slope to reach high camp by dark.
The trek out was uneventful, although the bus journey back to Kathmandu may have been the most dangerous event of the expedition. For the team it was a successful venture and a rich experience, but also one clouded by the current state of Nepal. The Maoist rebellion is finally a countrywide scourge, met only with political and military incompetence and paralysis. The vanishing tourist dollar is being replaced by insecurity, poverty, and fear, reflected in more begging, more praying, less civility, and fewer smiles on once-bright faces. Can this sort of damage be repaired?
The Rolwaling expedition would like to thank the Academic Alpine Club Zurich for its generous financial support. We are indebted to Chris Bonington, Eva Hronska, and especially Takanobu Sakagaki for their help.
Bruce Normand, Switzerland