Far East Nepal is best known for being crowned by the Kanchenjunga massif. Between there and Makalu the Himalayan crest makes an uncommon drop in altitude. Perhaps that is why climbers have not given peaks west of the Ghunsa Valley much attention. However, there are plenty of interesting summits between 5,500m and 6,500m.
In 2003, while trekking in the Yangma valley, I saw a number of peaks worthy of a small expedition and vowed to return. In October, accompanied by some of the members from my first foray to the Himalaya (Dunagiri in 1978), I got a permit to climb a peak near the head of the Pabuk Valley, which lies above the Bhotia village of Yangma. This village is remarkable in that it lies on a sunlit south-facing slope at 4,200m and is one of the, if not the, highest permanently settled village in Nepal. Yangma people trade over the 5,746m Ghan La at the head of the valley. They are closer to a Tibetan roadhead than one in Nepal by at least one week’s walk.
It was a late monsoon, so rather than fly, Ken Baldwin, Dave Barton, Colin Cameron, John Finnegan, Theo Hooy, Stacy Rodger, Keith Scott, and I took a bus from the Terai up to the roadhead town of Taplejung, a journey none of us cares ever to repeat. We reached our base camp after eight days of walking. It took a couple of days’ exploration to decide which was our peak—the locals had no idea. We opted for the most prominent peak at the head of the valley and found a friendly south-facing base camp site, with bountiful clear water and unknown access to our favored route on the peak, the southwest ridge.
It was heartening to see that these valleys still held healthy-looking herds of blue sheep, frequent sightings of which gave us the vain hope that we might spy a snow leopard. Our lack of stealth meant all we saw were tracks in the snow. Luckily, access to our preferred route proved both interesting and relatively straightforward. After meandering across, down, and then up the sides of old ablation valleys, we followed the bed of a long-retreated glacier on clean, high-friction slabs, which were just low angled enough to allow walking to a safe but spectacularly situated site for advance base. This provided a good view of our objective. From here we climbed onto a glacier and up to a short rock step, on which we fixed a rope before retreating to base camp in the face of an upcoming storm. This produced a foot of snow: the only significant fall of the trip.
When the weather cleared, we returned to see if we could make the climb. We established camp under a short headwall leading to a low point on our chosen ridge. On November 5 we left this camp at 4 a.m. The going was fast on firm snow, and by daylight we found ourselves faced with a choice of climbing a rocky tower that looked like a stack of shattered blocks, or making a traverse around the obstacle. I opted for the traverse and was treated to spicy climbing on overlapping iced-up slabs. Unfortunately my ropemate Dave and I had the best of it, as Ken, Keith, Theo, and Colin, who followed, found the going more precarious due to decreased ice. They were slowed to the point where they only made it a short distance past the start of the ridge proper before wisely deciding to call off a summit bid.
Back on the ridge we found conditions to be perfect, but as this was Dave’s first time at altitude, we thought it prudent to remain roped, so we simul-climbed, placing the odd snow picket very firmly. We were blessed with a crystal-clear autumn day. There was hardly a murmur of a breeze, and the vista in all directions presented peak after peak in fine detail, particularly to the west, where we could see Everest’s Kangshung face, the east face of Lhotse, Chomo Lonzo, and Makalu.
By 1:30 p.m. we stood as close to the corniced summit as we dared. To our north a broad brown valley dropped to a shimmering plain, and beyond it rose a group of peaks dangling stranded névé and glaciers: the Nyonni Ri Group (6,730m), explored by the 1935 Everest Expedition. Closer scrutiny revealed roads scarring the Tibetan landscape, the first time I’ve ever seen any roads from atop a Himalayan peak.
We were back down to the saddle, and the others, at 4 p.m. Deciding not to retrace the traverse, we made the short climb up to the summit of the sub-peak and rappelled down the teetering tower as darkness enveloped us. We all made it back safely to base camp the next day to find that John’s condition had worsened. He was the only member of the climbing team not to acclimatize, and eventually he had to be evacuated by helicopter.