The Winds of Chomolhari
A Test of Will on a Cold Tibetean Wall
“Someday you will be perfect,” said the charming shopkeeper in Lhasa, through a teasing smile. She gently touched my badly sunburned nose with her finger and consoled me. Someday I will be perfect…maybe. I giggled the whole day.
Ten years earlier. I had broken my ankle badly and was waiting for a flight in Kathmandu, spending my spare time in Pilgrims Book House. Browsing through some Chinese books, I noticed a small black and white photo of an attractive pyramidal mountain with a distinctive ridge. Among the Chinese characters I could read the name “Chomolhari” in English and a height of a bit more than 7,000 meters. Two years later, I returned to Kathmandu and looked for that strange book, but I couldn’t find it.
Later still, I noticed a photo of this mysterious mountain while browsing on the Internet. The photo was taken in Bhutan. The mountain had the same name but looked completely different from what I remembered, so I concluded it must lie on the border between Tibet and Bhutan. I learned that a Japanese expedition had stood on its top in 1996.
I wrote to Tamotsu Nakamura, a Japanese expert on Tibet. He promptly responded to my query, saying he would try to find some color photos, and ended with a kindly, “Please wait.”
This was the right thing to say. Patience is undoubtedly a virtue that is neglected in the modern age. The best information eventually came from Roger Payne, who had tried to climb the peak’s prominent northwest buttress in 2004; due to strong winds and bad weather, he and Julie Ann Clyma had only managed to reach the summit by approximating the 1996 Japanese route. It was clear to me that such a tempting objective would not stay hidden for long. We made our plans and finally received a permit to climb Chomolhari a week before our scheduled departure; our Chinese visas came through the day before our flight. I don’t need to explain how we felt about that.
In Beijing a short van ride led us to the Chinese Mountaineering Association, where an employee charged us $350 for two rides across town and dinner, a few hours in all. Any notion that China was cheap quickly turned into paranoia that we would spend our money too soon. We boarded the new Beijing-Lhasa train with our luggage in the evening, and after a 48-hour journey that was both picturesque and boring we arrived in Lhasa. The journey had just begun.
“Do you have something to ask for me?” This was the mantra of our guide, Lobsang. The 24-year-old Tibetan was a prime example of a successful Chinese education. The self-confidence with which he tried to mask his complete inexperience turned to confusion every time things didn’t go according to plan, along with, “Sorry, I don’t understand,” or, “Sorry, this is not possible.” Every time he prepared us for bad news, he started kindly: “I’m very sorry for you…”
He led us through the Potala and expertly described certain sights. He only spoke about the Dalai Lama in the past tense. To a question about the contemporary Dalai Lama, he abruptly answered that he had fled. So, a deserter?
The first time I was in Lhasa was in 1988. Then the town had an entirely Tibetan character, although the omnipresence of police and army troops gave a strong feeling of the government’s power. Now Lhasa is an entirely Chinese town. Tibetan pilgrims are merely a welcome attraction for tourists. I could hardly wait to leave.
Lobsang pointed to a snowy pyramid ahead of us. Although I had seen it for a while, I leaned forward to show my interest. To the right of the snowy mass I saw something that could be Chomolhari.
“Look!” shouted Damijan and Samo, almost at the same time.
Now we nervously shifted in our seats and raved like children in front of a toyshop. A white cloud covered the top of the mountain. There had been a lot of fresh snow. The driver understood our excitement and stopped by a lake.
It had been ten years since I had first seen Chomolhari in a photograph. Now, the physical confrontation was so sudden that I sensed the primal fear of the group. While our Chinese companions cheerfully ate lunch by our vehicles, the guys ate silently inside, out of the wind. The excitement over our new toy was obscured by countless doubts. We had hoped for much less snow on the mountain. Our conversation had stopped. Just as well: It had been obscuring the silence inside—the collective doubts—that we had to face eventually. My lunch of cold chicken leg wasn’t too appetizing as I thought of avalanches and snow plodding. The portion of insecurity on the menu would be heftier than we’d expected—it wouldn’t just spice up this climb; rather, it threatened to overpower all the other flavors, spoiling the taste entirely.
That night we camped in a stone yak pen. The tempo of civilization began to fade. We smiled to each other while secretly tormenting ourselves inside—life doesn’t get any better.
In the morning Samo and Rok went to check out the Japanese route, which we intended to use for our descent. The rest of us hiked to a glacial lake where we planned to set up base camp. For Tibetans this lake is sacred, and it filled us with excitement. The turquoise lake, the glacier descending into it, and the pyramidal peak looming above all created a magnificent backdrop. Each of us tried to express his emotions, but we ended up laughing at each other when it became clear we were just talking. We ignored the insecurity fluttering around like a bat. Back at the trailhead, we prepared loads and waited for the two inspectors, who came back with the message that the Japanese route was completely unsafe. One mystery was solved; there would be more to come.
After moving our supplies to the lake and establishing a base camp, Lori and I climbed an arête to a pointy peak along the ridge to the west. The mists cleared to reveal a neighboring peak, from which Rok and Samo waved to us. It was nice to feel the proximity of fellow men.
Back in base camp, impatience soon overtook the relaxed atmosphere. When could we go higher? The usual eagerness of the youngest members of our team caused us to nearly sprint toward the eastern neighbor of Chomolhari after a single rest day. I had incorrectly estimated this summit to be approximately 6,700 meters high; it was actually 200 meters higher. We paid the price for our initial fast pace and then, more slowly, made our way toward the shelter of a big serac in the middle of the face. I started digging a ledge into the snow in midafternoon. Lori and I set up our tent on a snow ledge, and then we all rested and cooked while watching the sunset. We had Chomolhari at the tips of our fingers. Our teasing expressed both friendship and our worries about the coming days.
In the cold morning, after a good night’s sleep, we crept out of our tents and climbed toward the summit. At the ridge the wind gained strength. Before I stepped onto the summit cornice, I asked Matej to belay me. We all took turns approaching the top, then started descending immediately. When I got close to the tents, I saw that the wind had buried one of them with snow; the other was hanging only by a buried shovel and swaying in the wind with all of its contents inside. The third was fluttering loudly. I quickly pulled down two of the tents and started to dig out the covered one. Matej and Tine decided to descend to the base rather than fight with the wind. The rest of us dug deeper into the ice, hoping for better shelter and another night at altitude to strengthen our acclimatization.
That night we realized our mistake. The wind continuously filled up the gap between our tents and the ice wall with snow, threatening to suffocate us. We dug them out repeatedly until dawn freed us and we dashed down to base camp.
While we had been struggling above, the wind had been taking its toll below, tearing down the kitchen tent, the dining tent, and two smaller tents. The sense of failure was complete. We sat and consoled each other by the broken dining tent. Ongchu, our cook, walked around in a daze and from time to time moved a piece of the ruins. When he finally excavated his stove, we jumped to his assistance, hoping for some tea, and with our combined energies we set up the tents again. Team spirit won out. Now we strengthened the camp as if we expected a windstorm. What this wind meant for the climbing conditions on Chomolhari we didn’t discuss. We all needed a bit of rest first.
After three days, thoughts of climbing crept back into our minds. Rok confidently declared that he and Samo would first climb the left couloir on Chomolhari and then maybe a more serious line. This was an ambitious, if not presumptuous, plan. The rest of us packed our gear to find a route through the glacier to the base of the face.
After just a few steps on the glacier, it became clear that this would not be an easy walk. For a while the four of us made some progress, and then we sat on our “weights” and waited for the other two, who were hurrying toward us. Soon we were laughing as Samo explained that “Junior” had changed his mind and they would be joining us. We slowly made our way to a steep serac beneath the north face, where we cached some gear.
After two days of rest and easy climbing around base camp, we were all sufficiently sharp for an attempt. We all moved to a bivouac below the face. After weeks of not having much appetite I found dinner that night very appealing—this is always a good sign. In the morning I had no troubles getting up. After some tea, we packed up, put on our packs, and started climbing.
Four lights quickly crossed the glacier and climbed onto the north face to our left. Lori and I started up the couloir right above our bivy. Now we were separated, each with our own sins, desires, and enigmas. After 50 meters in the couloir it became warm, and I pulled off my hood.
“Head lamp!” I screamed as my light slid off my helmet and bounced down toward Lori. I expected him to stop it, but my screaming startled him and he dodged the dark falling object. It stopped about a hundred meters lower on the glacier, so I asked him if he could get it. He put down his pack and descended, and I slowly continued up through the crusty snow. Strangely, this work was not as unpleasant as usual. I merrily pointed my boots into the snow and judged the characteristics of the slope ahead of me, aiming to find the crust that was strong enough to support my weight. I waited for Lori and we roped up. After three long pitches, we reached the sunny slope on the top of the couloir.
I sat in the snow, taking in the rope and watching the summit of the mountain, from which the wind was spinning snow off to the north. From the east, the sun cast sharp shadows and created an iridescent halo over the mountain, making a frightening backdrop. If this mountain was really the home of a goddess, as Tibetans believed, we would need her blessing. Lori arrived, and a smile and a few words easily redirected the flow of my thoughts.
Roped up, we simulclimbed the snowy arête over breakable crust. The gusty wind carried sharp snow crystals. At first I thought about backing off, but then I decided to continue so we could see as much new ground as possible. Slowly, I started to become accustomed to the blowing snow.
We reached a rocky barrier in the afternoon. At its foot a small cornice hid a rocky eave. I thought we could set up a tent there, but I wanted to have a look higher first. Each additional meter would serve us well. But it turned out there would be no point in moving on. The face was steep and contained difficult passages, and we weren’t as full of energy as we had been in the morning.
Under the rocky barrier behind the cornice, we carefully dug out a ledge for our tent. It was a great shelter. We only heard the wind when a bit of snow fell down the tent wall, like sugar sprinkling over a doughnut. I cooked late into the night and thought about the next morning. The comfortable shelter provided room for my growing ambition. “If we start light tomorrow, we may even reach the top. We’ll get down somehow.”
Lori nodded as he napped.
So we started climbing early in the morning. We only took one light pack. The first pitch offered difficult climbing, and interesting passages followed one after another. The snow was often soft and blown into small cornices that forced us onto steeper terrain than we had hoped. It quickly became clear that it was still a long way to the top. The wind pelted us with piercing snow crystals. Lori grimaced with the cold. I wanted to laugh, but somehow I didn’t feel like joking. I even stopped taking pictures. The climbing was great: The sculptor wind had demonstrated fantastic creativity.
We called Damijan at base camp on the radio. “When will you reach the top?” he asked. That was really an indecent question. Although we could see base camp, it was obvious he couldn’t see us—we were only tiny dots on the mountain.
In half a day we reached a small triangular snow slope beneath the second rocky step. A demanding pitch over steep rock followed. Above us was a chimney blocked by a big cornice and a rock overhang with a long ice pillar next to it. It would take a long time and a lot of energy to climb the chimney, so I led toward the left, hoping to find a passage over narrow bands of ice and snow. It went quickly at first, but these bands became smaller as the terrain got steeper, and the snow-ice often didn’t stick to the rock. The climbing demanded total concentration.
From the end of this pitch I traversed right to a rock horn, from which we descended diagonally to reach the exit of the chimney. Another pitch brought us to the edge of the upper snowfield. Here, strong wind covered us with snow continuously. A snowy funnel led up to a steep rocky wall. We stared up at the barrier.
“There, on the right, is some shelter.” Lori pointed to a potential bivouac site.
“Yes, I can see that. But our route goes above, on the arête.”
“We can go around to the right side.”
“We chose the arête, let’s climb there.”
I didn’t wish to discuss this any further. I climbed to the end of the snow funnel and found a snowy slope that led left to a small ramp, from which I hoped we could gain the arête.
We were out of time. After locating a bivy site with a bit of protection from the wind, we decided to return the next day with all of our gear. We started to descend toward our tent, some 500 meters lower. The rappels continued until the evening when, tired but satisfied, we crawled into our shelter.
That night was calm in our den. In the morning, we packed up everything and reclimbed the known terrain with our heavy loads. The hardened snow in our day-old steps sped our progress.
From the edge of the triangular snowfield, beneath the second rock band, I watched four tiny dots descend from the summit of Chomolhari. I was happy and proud that they—we—had succeeded. I even caught myself thinking that we could turn around now.
Around midday we reached the chimney we had skirted the day before. During our descent, we had rappelled through this chimney and then fixed a thin tag line, which we now used to quickly climb 20 meters to the top of the chimney with heavy packs. Above, I once again led the same delicate pitch I had climbed the day before. We continued up the snowfield through constant spindrift to reach our bivy site.
After quickly digging through wind-blown snow, we undertook the longer mining process into the hard ice below. We entered the tent before sundown. I cooked and tried to gauge the level of our motivation.
“What do you think?”
“In this wind…”
I tried to hide any doubts. I know far too well the moments when doubts and guessing reach epidemic proportions. Mixed with fear, they propel a person toward comfort, leisure, and certainty. The second-guessing strikes suddenly and becomes totally incapacitating. Like diarrhea.
In the morning, the cold, fatigue, and anxiety about the steep ground above us worked like a sedative, and we started slower than I would have liked for a summit day. I climbed toward the steep ramp leading to the arête and then faced my mistake. It was a dead end. Restarting, I climbed a long pitch over the wall on the right and made a hanging belay in the ice. Lori climbed to me and said, “I’m totally fucked up.”
It would be better if he hadn’t said that. I had sensed it anyway.
“I’m a bit cold,” I said. I changed the subject. “We can’t go straight up. Do you see that overhang?”
“Well, I’ll check it out to the left around the corner.”
Piled up doubts and the cold were dragging both of us down. I was chewing on that familiar feeling when curiosity and doubt unite into a tasteless mixture. What if there was no passage behind the corner? How long could we stand this cold? I felt as if one of us only had to say the word “descend” and we would turn downward. Lori’s eyes spoke of his desire to go down, but with his words he still approved of my stubborn search for a passage.
I stepped to the base of a chimney and began using my tools in a way that reminded me of the climbing stunts at mixed crags. I could afford these risks because the chimney offered some deceptive shelter and because the rare protection that I set up was quite good.
“If I peel we’ll have a good reason to turn back,” I thought boldly, just as a pick of my tool slipped down the crack.
At the top of the chimney, I realized with relief that only a snowy ridge separated us from the summit. I felt a strange victorious melancholy, almost like it would be OK if we started descending now. I had proved to myself that my assumptions were correct; the mystery was solved. Each time Lori moved, I gave him tension to speed up. When he reached me, he gasped, “I can barely feel my fingers. My toes are numb.”
“OK, we’ve climbed all the difficulties, now we can go down,” I said, verbalizing the thought I’d seen in his eyes for the last few hours. He stared at me and said, “What? Are you crazy? We are going to climb this last part!”
Yes! All I needed was a bit of encouragement to change my mood. The decision was now absolute: “To the summit.” A few doubts still gnawed at me as I started up a steep, rocky step covered with sugary snow, but it only hardened my conviction not to give up. Above this step I saw the ridge leveling toward the horizon. I sat in the snow and pulled the rope toward me. The sun shined on us and added noticeable warmth.
We unroped and I removed my harness, which had been bothering me since the morning. I slowly plodded toward the top, calm and relaxed. On the summit I looked around and took a picture of Lori. The view was so extraordinary it bordered on mystical. Looking toward mysterious Bhutan brought to mind the legend of the goddess who had allowed us onto the summit. We were satisfied that the wind, obviously a guardian of the goddess, had been relentless and yet merciful to us. We had withstood the test of will. The test of endurance continued.
At first, the descent flew by. As we rappelled, I proudly noticed the features I had used earlier for drytooling. When we reached the tent, I estimated we had enough time to continue, so I took it down. Thus I selfishly avoided a discussion about another bivouac at our high camp. Lori arrived at the tent site with the news that the rope was stuck. Without words and with no will, I climbed back to the anchor. My fatigue was overwhelming. To feel safe I had to rest every few meters.
With the rope freed, we slowly descended from the bivy. Gusts of wind hit us with hard snow crystals. The spindrift poured over us as we rappelled down the rocky step. The humming of the rope provided a nice musical backdrop.
At the lower bivouac, I waited for Lori and told him I wanted to keep descending.
“Are you kidding? Are you nuts?”
He was right, there was no point. A bit of rest would do us good. We set up the tent in the old spot, and I lay down on my sleeping bag. “I’ll rest a bit and then I’ll start cooking,” was the thought that accompanied me to sleep. When I started to feel cold, I moved inside the sleeping bag. “Cooking? Later.” I turned to the other side and slept until morning.
When we started again, I went first and then waited at the top of the couloir. I watched Lori descend at the edge of a wind-blown flag of snow stretching far toward the east. A mixture of worry, relief, and resignation kept me company. When Lori reached me, we didn’t speak much. His look said more than can be put into words. I thought about belaying, but the snow in the couloir was soft. I started descending the couloir, looking back up at Lori. A visible connection meant the same as being roped up.
I decisively stepped over the bergschrund as if to deliberately cross the line between the world of insecurity and the world of comfort. My foot broke through a hard crust covering a crevasse. “Ugh, it’s not over yet,” I thought as I pushed myself up and jumped toward comfort. At our bivy site below the face, I sat down on my pack and watched dots moving among the rocks at the end of the glacier. The guys were coming to greet us.
A feeling of friendship and thoughts of home finally tore me away from the mountain. My concentration, which had been at the verge of perfection over the last five days, was slowly evaporating. I returned to the foot of the couloir a couple of times and looked for Lori. He was downclimbing slowly and carefully. An hour of waiting passed quickly because I had already been to someplace warm in my mind.
Lori reached me, limping. I knew he wanted to rest, but now wasn’t the time. I encouraged him without offering any false sympathy, and then moved along.
My reunion with the other expedition members was hearty and genuine. The adventure we had consumed had bordered on overdose. Now that we were together again the whole experience had the strongest and purest taste. We sat on stones and indulged in idleness. Damijan walked ahead to meet Lori. When they returned, we felt a touch of solemnity because now we were really all together.
“Do you know what he said when we first met?” asked Damijan mischiefly. “He said, ‘I’m finished.’”
We burst into laughter. According to civilized etiquette, we should have shown sympathy to the tired newcomer. But our spontaneous reaction had a much better effect. Lori had a relaxed smile that wouldn’t wear off for days. Teasing in this respect was actually praise. We mercilessly repeated his quote at every opportunity and thus strengthened our friendship in a tribal way.
It’s true. Someday I will be perfect…maybe…
Area: Himalaya, Tibet-Bhutan
Ascent: First ascent of the northwest pillar (1,950m, ED2 M6+ 80°) of 7,326-meter Chomolhari, Boris Lorencic and Marko Prezelj, October 12-17, 2006. The expedition, which also included Rok Blagus, Tine Cuder, Matej Kladnik, and Samo Krmelj, along with doctor Damijan Mesko, also climbed the north face of Chomolhari and several new routes on neighboring peaks. See Climbs and Expeditions for details.
A Note About the Author:
Marko Prezelj, born in October 1965, lives in Kamnik, Slovenia, and is a husband and father, mountain guide, and photographer. He has been practicing alpinism for the last quarter of a century. He says, “An experienced mountain guide recently told me, ‘There are two kinds of people: people who climb (and have sex), and others who only talk about it.’”
Translated from the Slovenian by Ivana Odic, with assistance from Steve House.