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Asia, Nepal, Kanti Himal, Rongla Kangri Attempt; Pk. 5,984m and Pk. 5,930m, First Ascents

Rongla Kangri attempt; Pk. 5,984m and Pk. 5,930m, first ascents. Our permit for Nyegi Kangsang, a peak on the Indo-Tibetan border, was withdrawn just one week before we were due to leave for Kathmandu en route to Lhasa. A number of factors contributed to an increased level of paranoia from China’s regime in Tibet [This report was written well before the run-up to the 2008 Olympics—Ed.]: (1) 2006 video footage of a Buddhist nun and another Tibetan being shot dead on the Nangpa La, taken by foreign climbers on Cho Oyu; (2) the unfurling of a “Free Tibet” banner at Everest base camp during April 2007, when a Tibetan-American and three other Americans were arrested and detained, causing Chinese authorities to send troops to the Nepal border at Zhangmu and close the border for three days; (3) the possibility of demonstrations against the Chinese occupation of Tibet during the run-up to the 2008 Olympic Games. Issuing permits for border areas, such as ours on the already sensitive McMahon Line, was taken out of the hands of regional civilian governors and placed under the control of army commanders. We presume that when these commanders were asked by the Chinese-Tibetan Mountaineering Association to grant us our permit, they were not prepared to consider the possibility of any problem on their patch. This decision was plainly over the heads of the CTMA. Moreover, the Congressional gold medal given to the Dalai Lama in New York caused celebrations by Tibetans in Lhasa, which caused the authorities to impose a 9 p.m. curfew in the city for several days and cancel visas for low-cost tourist groups from Nepal to Tibet. Since the opening of the Lhasa Railway, 92% of Tibet’s tourism is now Chinese, so the authorities have little to fear from economic implications alienating Western tourists; Although peak permits seem to be obtainable for eastern Tibet (Nyanqen Tanglha), it appears that border areas will be difficult to access in 2008 at the time of the Olympics.

We therefore asked the CTMA for permission to climb a peak on the Tibet-western Nepal border called Rongla Kangri (known in Nepal as Kanti Himal, 6,647m). Only three peaks in this area had previously been climbed: Kaqur Kangri (6,859m), the highest summit in the Rongla Range (2002), and two smaller peaks of 6,328m and 6,159m, climbed from the Nepal side in 1997. We knew a Japanese team had already obtained a permit for the Changli Himal, west of Rongla Kangri [in September they made the first ascent of the highest peak in this group, 6,721m Kubi Kangri—see elsewhere in the Journal]. Unfortunately, the Chinese commander in charge of permits for this area was away and we had no alternative but to give up on Tibet for 2007. However, we had already paid airfares, and our equipment was in Kathmandu, so we were lucky to obtain, on short notice, a permit from Nepal to access the Kanti Himal.

Nick Colton, Luke Hughes, Phil Wickens, and I, with our LO, Manohari Baral, and two cooks/helpers, Phurba Tamang and Prem Tamang, flew to Jumla and on September 13 set off on our long trek north toward the border. We passed through Gamgadhi and Mugu, finally discovered a route up the Koji Khola, and established base camp on the 23rd at 4,650m. In the 16 days we were at or above this camp, it snowed on 10, leaving us only six days for activity. We later found that this was one of the worst post-monsoon periods in years.

Heading northeast toward the 5,495m border pass named the Koji La, we placed an advanced base at 5,170m, northwest of a lake, occupying it on October 1. The following day we moved northwest to the border col, giving access to the previously untrodden upper reaches of the Rongla Glacier on the far side, where we dumped loads at our proposed site for Camp 1. Above, to the east, rose a 200m granite face of 45–50°, leading to the northwest ridge of the 6,516m Rongla border summit (Rongla South). From there it would be a relatively straightforward ascent to the 6,647m main summit a little farther north.

On the 3rd Luke and I made a foray to the Koji La. According to local yak herders this was an ancient but little-used trade route. Now no yaks can cross the rocks on the Nepalese side, rocks that have been exposed by recent glacial recession, so it is only passable on foot. We got the impression that a few smugglers use the pass in summer, and we found prayer flags at 5,300m. The areas immediately north and west of this pass are the sources of the great Bramaputra River.

On the 4th Luke, Nick, and Phil left advanced base and established Camp 1 at 5,750m. Relentless winds and heavy drifts of snow were the norm for the next few days, but the three managed to climb the main snow gully in the granite face of Rongla South to 5,810m and deposit equipment. On the 6th the weather worsened and Luke took advantage of being the only member with skis to return to advanced base for more supplies. We decided that while Nick and Phil retreated over the col, Luke would rescue the gear from the face. Having done this Luke took the opportunity to solo Pk. 5,984m on the frontier ridge west-southwest of Rongla South. He climbed the north ridge over relatively compacted snow with some rocky bands. On the summit he was pummeled by strong winds. The following day, the 9th, the three woke to perfect conditions and, making an early start, climbed back to the col and up the icy south ridge of Pk. 5,930m, another border peak just south of Pk. 5,984m. I came up from base camp the same day and with Phurba and Prem removed advanced base. We left the area the following day, reaching Gamgadhi on the 14th. From here we were able to get a Twin Otter flight on the 17th to Nepalgunj, followed by a scheduled flight to Kathmandu. It had proved to be an exceptionally worthwhile exploratory expedition into little-known territory.

Julian Freeman-Attwood, Alpine Club