American Alpine Jounrna and Accidents in North American Climbing

Asia, Tibet, Himalaya, Menlungtse, North Face Attempt

  • Climbs And Expeditions
  • Climb Year:
  • Publication Year: 2006

Menlungtse, north face attempt. In October 1999 I was the leader of a four-man U.S.- Canadian party that made the first attempt on the north face of Menlungtse. Our goal was a route at the eastern end of the north face, which we hoped would lead directly to the summit.

Though the route was predominantly on snow and ice, a serac high on the mountain’s northeast face poses a serious obstacle to the final meters of the climb. We reached a buttress at about 5,600m, at which point a heavy snowstorm brought our attempt to a stand still. Discouraged by the prospect of avalanche-laden slopes high on the peak, we looked elsewhere and climbed a 6,262m peak (later named Milarepa) a short distance to the north.

In 2005 the team comprised two Russians—Yuri Koshelenko from Rostov- on-Dom and Nikolay Totmyanin from St. Petersburg—and I. We traveled the distance from Cho Oyu base camp by yak caravan, changing teams above the Rong- shar village of Tadzan (3,915m) in order to spread out employment opportunities among the different villages.

We left Tsamboche (3,350m) on April 25 for a two-day trek with yaks past the ruins of Chuar Monastery (3,180m), then back up the Menlung Valley, and finally around the north side of Menlungtse to the gorgeous turquoise lake below the enormous north face. Base camp, at 4,800m, was at the same site as in 1999, a mere 20 minutes from glacial moraine at the foot of the north face.

In the six years since my last visit, the serac high on Menlungtse’s northeast face had grown menacing, and that line now seemed unjustifiably dangerous. However, on the lower, west end of the two-kilo- meter-wide north face a rib separates the threatened central section of the wall from a steep rampart of rock and ice to the right. To gain access to this rampart we would have to climb an initial 200m vertical rock band. Fortunately, we spotted a line of water ice cutting through the barrier. This frozen runnel gave access to 500m of ice fields and mixed climbing that led to the base of an imposing triangular black wall, which we could not avoid. Looking through binoculars, Yuri spotted a crucial iced-up ramp cutting through it from right to left. Above the ramp a 400m couloir continued back right to reach a small glacial shelf at ca. 6,300m on the northwest ridge. From here, a fluted snow/ice ridge led up for ca. 400m to the 45° summit ice fields, which in turn rose a similar distance to the west shoulder and junction with the 1988 British Route [to the West Summit—Ed.]. A long traverse east across the mountains saddle-shaped glacier would lead to the main summit at 7,181m.

On May 14 we set off up the 1,600m face with about 10 days food and fuel. By the days end we’d reached the top of the initial rock band and set up our tent. The second day we climbed for eight hours up predominantly 50° snow and ice fields, overcoming a short section of delicate granite slabs and an 80° water-ice pitch 20m high. We bivouacked below the triangular rock buttress and next day traversed right, then climbed up to a good tent site below an obvious rock overhang we had spied from base camp.

On our fourth day we climbed the ramp leftward through the triangular rock barrier but ran out of time before reaching easy ice. We were forced to rappel 40m to a 55° ice shelf and hack out a very small ledge, on which we sat out the night. It was thoroughly miserable, as almost continuous spindrift pummeled out backs and prevented sleep. By morning we were exhausted from the effort of surviving the undignified night.

We climbed on, and our prayers were answered late in the fifth day when we finally emerged onto the huge snow shelf at the top of the face (ca. 6,300m). We quickly found a nonmenacing, overhanging serac (if one can say that about any overhanging serac you’re about to sleep under) and flattened a tent site. Now our spirits were high. Above, we could see the remaining ground to the shoulder, from where the traverse to the main summit did not appear complicated.

Next morning Yuri awoke with the uncomfortable sensation that his left arm was becoming numb. A previous spinal injury from a fall on the Dru was probably the cause, no doubt exacerbated by the miserable night of continual spindrift and possibly irritated by a subsequent uncomfortable sleeping position in our tent. He elected to rest while Nikolay and I fixed our three ropes on relatively easy terrain above the serac. When we returned, Yuri was still not feeling well. We therefore used some precious minutes on our satellite phone to talk with a doctor in the U.S. The diagnosis was puzzling, yet Yuri’s condition did not suggest altitude sickness, so we elected to wait out the night. After packing up camp the following morning, Nikolay jumared the first rope. Yuri followed, but at the anchor he felt too weak to continue safely upwards. We made a tough but necessary decision. We all felt it was prudent to descend while Yuri felt strong enough to do so under his own power. We began to rappel at around 10:00 a.m.

Our descent of 35 pitches of steep terrain, close to the route of ascent, was time-consuming and tedious but not overly complicated. With a mixture of relief and disappointment, we slogged into base camp around midnight the same evening.

Carlos Buhler, AAC

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