Tawoche, east ridge, winter ascent. For the first time in 62 years it snowed in Kathmandu. This same storm also dumped more than a meter of snow in the Khumbu, making for an interesting few days. It was February 2007 and Kristoffer Erickson, Seth Hobby, Adam Knoff, Ross Lynn, Renan Ozturk, and I were on a Mammut-sponsored winter expedition to do some new routes on 6,495m Tawoche. Prior to this we had all been part of the Khumbu Climbing School, acting as instructors for the 60 Sherpa students that signed up this year.
We set up base camp at just over 5,000m, high above the village of Pangboche. From there we had easy access to the unclimbed southwest ridge, the south ridge, and the whole east side of the mountain. After making a reconnaissance Adam, Kristoffer, Ross, and I set off for the east ridge, while Renan and Seth went for the south ridge.
The rocky east ridge snakes to the glaciated upper section of the mountain. Climbing in teams of two, we soloed, simul-climbed, and pitched the 1,000m rock ridge, which offered everything from loose scree slopes to dazzling pitches of 5.9 climbing in mountain boots. Everest loomed above our heads the whole day, the ever-present jet steam nuking off the summit. We climbed from base camp to ca 6,000m in just 12 hours, then bivouacked in temperatures of nearly -30°C. Above the bivouac lay 500m of 70° ice and ridge climbing to the summit. The four of us topped out at 10 a.m. on February 4 in clear skies and westerly winds. We descended the same day by rappelling the southeast face between our line of ascent and the original route [possibly the so-called Japanese couloir—Ed.]. Halfway down, a snowstorm moved in and made further progress slow. Approximately eight hours after reaching the summit we arrived back at base camp from a 36-hour round trip.
During our ascent we found an empty gas canister at ca 5,500m, which had been stashed in a crack on a perfect ledge. A little above 6,000m, after the “exit pitch” that allowed us to gain the upper glacier, we discovered a large snow picket lying in the snow. This was the only evidence of gear on the ascent. We concluded the picket probably originated from a previous party descending the east face. It was more than likely the first piece they rapped from: it then melted out and fell down to the edge of the rocks. During the descent we found no evidence of fixed gear: most parties in the past have descended the original route on the southeast face. We graded our 1,600m route up the east ridge VI 5.9 AI 2.
[Editor’s note: Although at the time of writing it cannot be confirmed, it appears that this ridge is likely the line climbed in December 1989 by the Anglo-German pair, David Etherington and Joerg Schneider. They reached the summit on the 11th, so their ascent was technically outside the calendar winter season. They made two bivouacs, at ca 5,600m and 6,140m, and on the summit day were able to make it back to the base of the mountain via a line close to the Japanese couloir. The rock ridge had previously been climbed to within 100m of the upper glacier in April 1988 by Andy Black and Mal Duff. By the time they reached their high point it had been snowing for some time. Above loomed a difficult granite wall, so they traversed left into the top section of the Japanese couloir, which Duff had climbed on a previous occasion, and descended this.]
Renan and Seth attempted the south ridge, a proud buttress of solid rock. They made it to the top of the buttress, where they bivouacked through the storm that hit us on the descent. Next morning, in unstable weather, their summit push was thwarted by a rock wall, for which they were not prepared. After a laborious descent that destroyed their ropes, they made it back to camp, where they informed us they had found a lot of fixed gear, including bolts, pins and fixed rope [this is likely the line climbed in October 1990 by Germans, who fixed ropes on the lower section, found some difficult steep rock climbing and refer to it as the southeast pillar—Ed.].
When a week of bad weather finally cleared, we had only three days left in our schedule. Adam, Kris, and I made an attempt on the southwest ridge, which had been our primary goal for this trip. We experienced mostly good rock and harder climbing than on the east ridge. At ca 5,600m we farmed out a nice bivouac ledge, with the plan being to leave sleeping gear the following morning and go lightweight for the summit. Sadly, we woke to a blizzard and were forced to rappel. This marked the end of our time and the southwest ridge will have to wait until next year. Of the 14 days we had at or above base camp only four were good weather and it’s a wonder we summited at all.
After an epic descent from base camp, our journey out of the Khumbu developed into a whole new experience. It dumped over a meter of snow, burying the range. Even the locals found it a rare and beautiful sight. Once in Lukla we had to contend with a snow-covered runway, and in order to make our scheduled flight out from Kathmandu, we had to face the harsh reality of shoveling the entire runway. This was no small feat, as the runway is half a kilometer long and 30m wide. We rallied the town and spent two full days shoveling with less than adequate equipment. To our surprise, planes landed. We ended up with just three hours between our flight from the Khumbu and our flight out of Nepal: just enough time to repack, shower, and eat one final meal of dhal bhat. What a trip!
Whit Macro, AAC