Americans Bag Two Major First Ascents in Nepal

Lunag West with the first-ascent route marked.

Lunag West with the first-ascent route marked. Photo by Chris Wright.

12/3/13 - Scott Adamson and Chris Wright battled unusually deep snow and cold to complete the first ascent of two peaks in Nepal this autumn. Both climbs were above the Lunag Glacier, a little-traveled zone in the northwest corner of the Khumbu region.

The two men shared a basecamp with fellow Americans David Gottlieb and Chad Kellogg, who were attempting the first ascent of Lunag Ri, a high unclimbed peak in the area. (Gottlieb and Kellogg made two attempts, but abandoned the climb after Gottlieb developed frostbite on his fingers.) Shortly after the team arrived at basecamp, a major storm dumped more than four feet of snow over three days, adding serious difficulty to the rest of the expedition.

On October 20, about a week after the storm began, Adamson and Wright made their way to advanced base camp via a four-mile hike over a jumble of boulders and moraine they had already dubbed the Hellplex. Now, with all the new snow, "It was like a comically bad swimming session," Wright said. "You'd be breaking trail through thigh-deep powder over rocks, and every second or third step you'd fall into your hip and flail to get out." It took them six hours to complete the four-mile approach.

After a rest day, the two men climbed their first new route: the southeast face of Lunag West (ca. 21,350 feet). Wright had checked out this line during a trip to the same area the previous fall with Geoff Unger, and now it appeared to be in much better condition. The route climbed an obvious couloir with an hourglass choke point that provided the crux. Adamson and Wright soloed to the crux and then led as quickly as possible through vertical and overhanging ice and up the narrows above. Both men were struck by rockfall as the sun warmed the face, but were not injured.

Wright heading for the crux headwall on the northeast face of Pangbuk North.

Wright heading for the crux headwall on the northeast face of Pangbuk North. Photo by Scott Adamson.

When they got to the ridgeline above the face, they stopped to rest and brew up inside a crevasse, and then climbed steep snow to the summit, which they reached just before midnight. Knowing they had to descend before dawn to avoid more rockfall, they rappelled and down-climbed throughout the night, reaching the foot of the face at 5 a.m., about 24 hours after starting. The new route is called Open Fire (V WI5 M3, 1,000m).

A week later, after some rest at basecamp, the two returned through the Hellplex to advanced base with the goal of climbing a 21,617-foot peak they called Pangbuk North. An international team had claimed the first ascent of this peak in 2009, naming it for their sponsor, the Swiss luxury watch company Jaeger-LeCoultre. In 2010, a French team also attempted the peak, and Wright had tried it during his expedition to the area in 2012.

The new route on the northeast face of Pangbuk North in Nepal.

The new route on the northeast face of Pangbuk North in Nepal, with the bivouac site marked. Photo by Chris Wright.

Adamson and Wright's plan was to attempt a direct line on the northeast face through a crux headwall, and then bivouac and find a way to the summit and back to their high camp. On October 31, they started up the face. Wright led the two crux pitches through the headwall, at about 20,400 feet, overcoming rotten ice and loose, overhanging rock. The second lead proved terrifying, with very little gear and foot-cutting hooking.

"You know how sometimes on a rock climb you're just desperately groping upwards until you hit a jug, and then you think that if that jug had come two feet later you'd have pitched?" Wright said. "It felt like that, except if I had pitched, I would probably have gotten broken."

After another long pitch, the two chopped a small tent platform at around 20,600 feet and spent a short night there. In the morning, the two climbed steep ice and snow flutings to the tiny summit, which they reached around 4 p.m.  "When I got there, I found [Scott] had demolished the snowy pinnacle so he could sit down, and he'd hung his pack off the overhanging south side and clipped into it so that it could counterbalance his belaying me up the north," Wright said. After rappelling to their snow ledge and spending another night, they descended the rest of the face to safely complete Purgation (VI WI6+ M6 1,100m).

Adamson (left) and Wright on the summit of Pangbuk North.

Adamson (left) and Wright on the summit of Pangbuk North. Photo by Chris Wright.

Back home, the two tried to figure out whether to claim the first ascent of the peak, which the 2009 team still maintained it had climbed. "After a few days of pondering, we realized we had two choices," Wright said. "Scott and I figured we could either say we just did a new route, in which case people would ask whether we thought [the 2009] ascent was valid, which of course we don't, or we could just come out and say that we made the first ascent, which obviously implies that we think [the] claims are bogus. In either case, we'd be forced to admit that we thought [they] had just made up the story."

Wright wrote to all four Swiss and French members of the 2009 team and has heard back from two of them, but neither addressed the question of the first ascent directly. Since their "summit photos" look nothing like the true summit—and in fact are obviously along a lower ridge—Wright concludes that he and Adamson definitely did the first ascent of the peak, which they call simply Pangbuk North.

Last spring, Adamson and Wright climbed a huge new route on the east face of the Mooses Tooth in Alaska. Their Nepal expedition was backed in part by an AAC/Mountain Hardwear McNeill-Nott Award and a Mazamas Alpine Adventure Grant.

Dates of ascents: October-November 2013

Sources: Chris Wright, American Alpine Journal