In spring 2009, while climbing Jobo Rinjang with Joe Puryear, I saw for the first time Pangbuk Ri. With a massive dual summit and steep flanks on the Nepalese side, it presented an alluring objective. Two years later I had the privilege of returning to the area with Chad Kellogg. After a pleasant week acclimatizing in Rolwaling, we trekked over the Tashi Lapcha to meet Da Temba Sherpa, who had flown to Lukla with our expedition equipment. We established base camp at the toe of the Pangbuk Glacier, next to the last easily accessible water.
During the following week of magnificent day hikes we scouted potential lines, soon realizing that possibly two thirds of the Nepalese side of the mountain was exposed to serac and rockfall. This left an interesting direct route up the main east face. After three days of load carrying, we had advanced base pitched above the last large icefall on the main glacier, tucked below an overhanging cliff. We debated climbing the first pitch of steep ice just above camp and leaving ropes in place to speed up our climb. Bad style? Hard on the ropes? Faster take off for a big climb? Big mistake.
In the early hours of November 10 we set off for a single push ascent, to find the ropes frozen into the face. We’d spent a great deal of time tying them off at an angle, hoping to keep them out of the ice. Chad gazed at me with that your turn look. With a prussik for protection, I chipped them out. Seen from the belay above, pink light touched the snow on the upper slopes of Everest. We continued unroped up a couloir of névé and unconsolidated snow. After an hour, the sun hit the top of the face, and soon there was the familiar hum of falling rock and ice. A stone hit my helmet, compromising it. I wanted to take it off and see the damage, but knew better and kept on climbing with improved motivation.
Higher, as we’d hoped, a more northerly change in aspect eased the rockfall and let us get back to the fun of climbing. A maze of steep snow flutings challenged Chad and me to the edge of our abilities. We led in blocks through small overhangs of unconsolidated snow and ice, reached dead ends, and made long overhanging rappels to reach climbable runnels. Day passed to night, and I went through many second winds. At 2:30 a.m. we were pushing into cold wind on a moonlight-drenched crest, a short distance across easy terrain from the summit. Anchored, we climbed down into a moat or crevasse and melted snow, as we waited for the warmth of the sun, agreeing there was no way we could go back down the route. The sun rose, and we soon stood on the summit, cameras in hand, smiling, but knowing we were merely halfway through the climb.
We descended the opposite side of the mountain. Downclimbing and making more than 20 rappels filled the rest of the day and half the following night. Our adrenalin long ago spent, we placidly cowered as rock and ice flew by. Our descent line was possibly not the best, yet we let gravity lead us down and by midnight were on the glacier a mere 16km from base camp.
The hike back was a blur of hallucinations and stumbling deep the world of ghosts, while a large moon lit the way. At some point we ditched the packs and at 6 a.m. stumbled into base camp, where Da Temba fed us and sent us to bed, exhausted after our 50-hour climb. It took a week to recover and collect our advanced base, then Chad and I hiked out to Jiri. We named our route Ghost Ride the Whip (1400m, VI AI5 M5). Thanks to Elizabeth Hawley, Jay Janousek, and Joseph Puryear for research support.
Editor’s note: This was the first ascent of Pangbuk Ri, brought onto the official list of permitted peaks in 2002. In 1955 Peter Boultbee and Dennis Davis made a spirited attempt from the Menlung Glacier in Tibet. They climbed the west-southwest ridge to a snow shoulder, but encountered great difficulties trying to get along the connecting ridge toward the main summit. It took four and a half hours to travel 120m along the crest, where they were eventually stopped by a 60m rock tower. The “official” HMG-Finn map gives an altitude of 6,625m for the main summit, but all other maps record 6,716m, and Elizabeth Hawley felt Gottlieb and Kellogg should trust the Schneider map.