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Asia, Tibet, Himalaya, Tsha Tung, First Ascent

Tsha Tung, first ascent. During my 2003 winter attempt on Xixabangma I noticed a small peak on the south side of the Phu Chu Valley just east of Eiger Peak (6,912m), as it was called by Doug Scott’s 1982 Xixabangma expedition. Later study showed it to be a northerly outlier of Gyaltsen (6,151m). My Tibetan yak herder and camp assistant, Kesang Tsering, told me it was called Tsha Tung and was, as far as anyone locally knew, unclimbed. It looked like a perfect objective for a short, semi-commercial trip (I believe the correct phrase is “not-for-profit”).

Later that winter I was guiding in Chamonix, when my client said he would be interested in a trying something new but not too difficult in the Himalaya. The seed of the idea was formed. The final team and camp staff were Jo Cleere, Vernon Gayle, Philip Jeffery, Victor Saunders, and John Tunney (all British), plus Kasang Tsering and Penpa Tsering (Tibetan Chinese), with Yie Xie and Huang Zhi Qiang (Chinese). Jo takes up the story:

“June 2005. Our plan had been to trek from the Xixabangma north-side base camp to the south-side base camp. The average altitude of our trek would have been around 5,000m giving us sufficient acclimatization for an attempt on Tsha Tung (5,995m). In the event we were unable to hire yaks at the last village before the north-side base camp. Lack of rain in the spring had been hard for the yaks and their herders didn’t want to exhaust the animals on another expedition. The plateau in this part of Tibet is a barren and desolate place, and the villagers rely on their yaks for food and transport. In addition, the yaks are an important source of income during the main climbing season on Xixabangma, when they are used to carry loads. So, we were back in the 4x4 for another exciting drive to Nyalam (3,700m). The morning after our arrival we used yaks to carry loads up the first eight kilometers of the Phu Chu Valley to our base camp at Drak Po Che (a.k.a. Smaug’s Lair, 4,070m).

“The most logical route on our peak was the wide, snowy east ridge. We used a couple of donkeys to carry loads up to Camp 1 (4,600m), located in a beautiful hanging valley fed by a couple of streams. The following day we scrambled up loose boulders and rock for about 400m and then followed a rocky shelf, establishing Camp 2 (5,135m) at the snout of the glacier. June 19 was our summit day and initially involved moving westward on a broad glacial shelf and climbing a 100m 40° ice wall to the ridge. Seven hundred meters of snow led to the fine summit pyramid. As the clouds drifted in and out, we had an occasional glimpse of the fearsome- looking north face of Phurbi Chachu and a set of pinnacles at its eastern end, which we dubbed The Coolin Towers. The grade of our route equated to Alpine PD, and descent, following our route of ascent, was straightforward, with even some judicious glissading to ease tired legs.

“On June 21 we cleaned the area around base camp and bagged our tins to be carried down by yak, taking care to leave the camp as we found it. Then we finished our expedition with a trek up to the base camp under Xixabangma’s southwest face. Here we found huge amounts of garbage left by recent winter expeditions. The piles of rubbish and debris were quite recent (winter 2004) and even included car batteries, which had been dumped next to the lake in the middle of the camp. They had been discarded together with large piles of plastic, unwanted gear, and gas canisters. It is unacceptable to leave camps in such a state.”

Jo is right. It is quite unacceptable. Over the years there has been much informal discussion as to who is to blame for this type of execrable behavior. American and Nordic expeditions are often contrasted, favorably, with those of other nationalities. Sometimes the blame is laid at the door of the growing commercial expedition industry, but the more I visit the Himalaya, the more I come to the opposite conclusion: amateur expeditions often leave much more rubbish than commercial trips, possibly because commercial ventures have a vested interest in keeping their sites clean for future clients. At this camp site the most recent offenders had left a calling card; a bleached yak skull signed by members of the Italian-Polish winter expedition. The marker pen had been left alongside.

Victor Saunders, Chamonix, France