Expedition to the Khumbu Valley and Cholatse, Nepal
This post-monsoon expedition had the goal of exploring the less traveled Cholatse (6443m) mountain in the middle of the Khumbu Valley in Nepal. The style was alpine and light, the team just made up by Robert Steiner and myself, both German nationals. We left Frankfurt on the 14th of September with a cheap and badly timed Air India flight, had a day in Katmandu for organization, and arrived to the Khumbu at the rough little airport of Lukla town with its short uphill landing strip on the 17th. We hiked in through the beautiful Khumbu Valley, surprised at the development of internet, coffee shops and prices, to reach base camp on the 22nd of September. The first days had good weather, sunny with occasional rain at night, but towards the end of the hike it regularly started to rain around noon. Unfortunately we should find this not to stop, rather get worth, for a long time.
With the luxury of our sidar and cook Dorje Lama and the basecamp equipment donated by SummitClimb, life at the base of Cholatse's north face at 4700 meters altitude was quite comfortable, but after all we came to climb, not sleep and eat all day. So on 24th we left base camp for an acclimatization hike. With the weather too bad, fog and no visibility, we took two short hiking days, the later over a crevassed glacier, to the Cho La Col at 5500 meters the higher twin to the easily reached Cho La Pass. On the 26th we had huge luck: the only little good weather break in three weeks let us wake up with blue sky. Thus we headed up the right hand ridge from the col with sunrise. Partly in deep snow we reached Nirekha peak at 6150 meters height around noon, the sun burning hot on to our skulls. Back at the tent at 4:00 pm the weather was closing again with even more snowfall.
With rain in base camp every day it became hard to keep things dry, or even try to dry wet cloth. Robert got a cough and meanwhile I hiked up Kala Patar and around the villages for a few days at the start of October. On the 3rd weather changed. Instead of rain, we now had snowfall at base camp. Winter was coming, we partly joked. Finally on the 5th we started for another acclimatization climb on Lobuche. Postponing our start from 2:00 as it was snowing, we did get out and start upwards around 5:00am. With a bit of clear sky in the morning, promising process, soon big clouds moved in again. Snow conditions were horrible too. At 5800m on a ridge with fresh snow slides going of both sides we turned around. We got down to rocky terrain of the normal route and hiked to base camp in deep fog. Visibility was so bad, around a few meters, I lost my way on a shortcut, so ended walking around grassy meadows for an extra hour. It could have been in some valley in Scotland as well.
Our goal to climb the north face of Cholatse, probably just the third ascent, possibly on a new route, moved into far distance. Although we could not see the face anymore due to the continuous clouds and fog, now the noise of avalanches left no doubt to its presence above our base camp . Before we could enter this 1500 meter steep and demanding face we would have to wait for the snow to settle, ice to build. All that a matter of at least two weeks, we decided to go on the other side of the mountain first and try the normal route, which mainly as ridge is less endangered by snow conditions. On the 8th we hiked over the 5360 meter high Cho La Pass in a horrible snowstorm to reach Dangnak at 4700 meters. In the evening, while brushing my teeth, I saw the clear milky way across the Himalayan mountain range. Without a single cloud, bright luminous light of the stars reflected in the snow covered mountain giants, and I knew, the weather was finally going to be good.
On the next day the sun rose into a blue sky while we hiked through the valley leading towards the normal route of Cholatse. We passed the wide valley of Nagtok, where expedition normally establish their base, and put up our camp on the glacier moraine at 5100 meters height. It was still early, around 11:00 am, but the mountain was covered with deep snow, now being soft by the sunshine. We watched the westface spitting out avalanche and seracfalls during the day, and picked up the route we would go on the next day. Starting early, before sunrise, we crossed the glacier on a quite passable route through the crevasses. After 2 hours we stood on the plateau below the big rock tower, where right-hand the normal route leads to the big snow col. We took the left-hand couloir, which steepened up to 75 degree ice on the first hundred meters. We belayed one pitch. Then at 55 degree snow it involved tunneling through the soft upper layer. At the top of the 300 meter high couloir we belayed another pitch. I lead tunneling through some very deep snow, just below some short mixed terrain, when I hit my mouth with a carabiner. I lost half of my two front, but had to leave that behind and concentrate on climbing. Luckily I could get in some gear, and tunnel upwards through a chimney, one side snow, the other rock, to reach the ridge underneath the rock tower. After Robert reached me, we started digging a campsite and put up the small tent at the 5700 meter height.
The next morning, on the 11th of October, we woke up at 1:00 am. Despite the tooth problem and deep snow, we decided to give it a go. Maybe this was my last day of climbing in Nepal, so at least I wanted to have a good end. Now Robert was leading ahead, but we did not rope on. The ridge was steeper then it looked on the day before, and one place we headed straight over some snowed up granite slabs. At around 6100m we reached a small overhanging ice wall, we called the serac, on which we roped on and traversed left before heading upwards. It involved some serve tunneling of about 100 meters to get to the plateau above. On that occasion we lost our medical kit with the satellite phone, throwing it down a 700m face. From there to the final ridge was fairly easy terrain, followed by some exposed south side traverse, where we roped on again. The wind at the ridge would roar above us, in some places hitting snow and ice crystals into our face, that it was hard to see the climbing partner on the other end of the rope. Finally we reached the top at 9:00 am after 7 hours of hard work. We took a few photos to head back down quickly, out of the wind and to down the top ridge before the sun softens the snow. Taking our time, descending slow and safe, we reached camp at 2:00 pm. We slept there another night to down climb next morning in safer, frozen snow conditions. Traversing along old fixed ropes on the normal route we found this to be a lot less demanding then our direct ascent to the left of the rock tower. Back on the plateau below the tower and west face, we even found back the medical kit with and intact satellite phone, thus happily walked out of the glacier to the green grass of the Nagtok valley.
While Robert hiked back over the Cho La Pass, I went down to Namche Bazar to visit the dentist. The so proclaimed world’s highest dental clinic did a good job and repaired the tooth with a composite build-up. Back in base camp on the 16th I find Robert bandaged around his knee. Seeing him I thought it might have happened on a climbing exploration as he got bored, but he explained he fell while hanging his cloth onto a rope spanned as washing line, then badly twisted his leg. It was so bad that he had to go back to Germany, possibly get operated. On 17th I explored the north face on my own, just to find the main couloir constantly covered in spin drift. Definitely to dangerous for a solo ascent. Thus on 19th we packed up base camp and he started down. Luckily on my Namche trip I meet Christian Huber, an Austrian living in Boulder, who was on a Cholatse permit with his American partner. We meet again and he said they would not mind a team of three, and at that point his partner was sick too. He invited me along to Island peak, where he acclimated guiding trekking client. Sleeping long I went for a speed ascent of the mountain , climbed from my camp at 5000 meters to the summit near 6200 meters in just under 3 hours (2 hours 57 minutes to be exact) and returned in 4 hours and 40 minutes. After a day of rest Christian and I went back to the lodge of Dzongla, just opposite of the Cholatse north face and 150 meters above our former base camp. On the 24th the alarm clock rang, at 1:00 am again.
We started hiking at 2:00 am to reach my former solo tracks at the base of the face around 4:30 am. We solo climbed 50 degree step snow and ice to the step middle section below the yellow rock triangle, then roped on. I lead a pitch passed step snowed up rock, followed by three easier pitches. On the last we traversed left out of the main line, partly because there was a lot of spin drift and ice fall coming down that. Out to the left I lead a pitch of up to 85 degree step snow patched on rock. From a good belay I tried another pitch up, but it was getting more snowy and less icy: so worth conditions, and almost no protection. At around 2-3 pm, at 5500 meters, we turned around. We partly down climbed, rappelled 4 pitches while spin drift and snow was hitting down the face, finally reaching the moraine at the bottom of the face around dawn. At 7:30 pm we pitched our bivouac tent at the old base camp site, then headed out to Namche over the next two days. With little time left, I headed to Lukla on the 28th, back to Katmandu. On the 2nd of November I left Nepal…