There are iconic unclimbed peaks, faces, and features that captivate the collective imagination of the mountain-climbing establishment at different times, precisely because of their apparent impregnability, their stubborn resistance to repeated attempts by would-be summitters. With each failed attempt, the allure and mystique of such peaks, whether in the Karakoram, Himalaya, or elsewhere, grow. Challenges such as K2 in winter fit this mold. On a more technical level, Link Sar or the still-unclimbed (to the summit) North Ridge of Latok 1 follow the same script, sometimes resisting the best efforts of dozens of expeditions. Conrad Anker famously needed three attempts to tame the Shark’s Fin on Meru, even while others attempted the same feature.
Could a little-known peak called Tengkangpoche (6,487 meters)—or, more specifically, the North Pillar of Tengkanpoche—be one of the next biggest challenges in the Himalaya? The North Pillar of Tengkangpoche (pronounced Teng-Kang-Po-Chay) is a soaring monolithic buttress that looks as difficult as it is, and is proving a vexsome riddle for even the best alpinists to solve.
“I really do think it’s one of the great problems of the Himalayas,” says the Welsh climber Quentin Roberts, 29. He should know: Roberts has waged two campaigns on Tengkangpoche’s North Pillar, and gotten further than anyone else on his 2019 expedition with Finnish climber Juho Knuutilla.
Just a week ago, Roberts and his American partner Jesse Huey returned to North American soil after a nearly two-month expedition trying to climb the North Pillar. Though unsuccessful, they feel encouraged by their fast pace on the terrain that they did climb, and the thought that—if weather cooperates on a future trip—they might be able to take it to the top.
What makes the North Pillar so appealing? To start with, the technical climbing covers nearly 1,900 vertical meters. “It’s a huge amount of steep terrain,” Roberts says. “You don’t find that really anywhere, except maybe the Golden Pillar or Spantik? Or Cerro Kishtwar? Or some places in the Karakoram? These features don’t exist that much around the globe, it’s really special and an incredibly striking feature.”
The North Pillar involves “all of the facets of climbing that I’m trying to be good at,” Roberts says. Objectively, since the pillar is a buttress, objective hazard from overhead seracs or rockfall is lower than on many other attractive faces and features of comparable size.
The bottom of the pillar has snow that “gloms onto the rock” forming “unprotectable but climbable ice on the lower slabs,” he says. “You can climb it quite efficiently, but it’s scary.” On this most recent trip, he did one particular 60-meter pitch with nothing but a single Pecker for protection. “And I didn’t even trust that,” he says.
Then, higher up, there’s technical rock, easily up to 5.11+. “Unless you started spraying bolts everywhere,” he says, “it has mandatory runout and difficult climbing. And you need to be able to climb well on small edges as you break from one crack system into the next.”
Naturally, there’s plenty of delicate ice and mixed terrain, too, up to M7.
To top it all off, the final stretch to the summit is guarded by a “corniced Alaskan-style spine” of snow,” though Roberts has yet to make it here on either of his two attempts.
All of that combined means the commitment level is high. Descending from the summit would present its own unique obstacles.
In the second half of April this year, Roberts and Huey arrived at the tea-house in the valley below the mountain, which served as their base camp. The North Pillar looked dryer than Roberts had ever seen, as though you could wear rock shoes the entire way. He thought they might do just that given the chance.
But it was too good to be true; conditions deteriorated as they are wont to do in the Greater Ranges. “Snow just started accumulating fast,” Roberts says. “We kind of sat on our butts for most of May. Living in a rain cloud most days.”
They took advantage of the one decent opportunity they had and shot up the bottom half of the North Pillar. In a single day they reached what had been the 15-year highpoint on the wall prior to the one Roberts’ and Knuutilla set in 2019. But then, forced off by weather, Roberts and Huey retreated. Weather socked them in, never giving them another chance.
While the North Pillar has never been breached, Tengkangpoche has been climbed to the summit several times. It’s climbing history speaks to the mountain’s appeal from all directions.
The first confirmed—though unauthorized—ascent of the mountain came in 1984 by Andy Zimet and Trevor Pilling and Andy Zimet, via the East Ridge.
The British climber Nick Bullock did the first ascent, solo, of the Northeast Face to the East Ridge in 2003. Though he tried to reach the summit, he deemed the crevasse-laden ridge too dangerous to navigate by himself and retreated. On that same trip he attempted the Northwest Face with Jules Cartwright and Al Powell. The following year, Bullock returned with Nick Carter to try to polish off the Northwest Face—which he did—but again only to the summit ridge, failing to reach the summit proper.
The second ascent of Tengkangpoche didn’t come until the spring of 2009, when the late Ueli Steck and Simon Athamatten forged a new route, Checkmate (1,700m, UIAA VI AO M7+ WI5), up the Northwest Face. That autumn, Hiroyoshi Manome and Yasushi Okada made the first integral ascent of the Northeast Face and became the third team to reach the summit. They named their route Moonlight. The last recorded summits came in 2014, when Anastasia Petrova, Galina Chibitok, and Marina Kopteva climbed a new route on the northeast face, The Battle for Love, which shares a start with Moonlight.
The North Pillar—in particular, the eastern part of it, accessible by easier terrain on the Northeast Face—has received its fair share of attention all the while. Several parties have fixed their sights on it over the past 20 years, including one in 2003 and another in 2005, only to come away empty-handed.
More often than not, those with aspirations to climb the North Pillar of Tengkangpoche have left without ever stepping foot on it, due to poor conditions, inclement weather, alternative objectives seducing them, or a combination of all three. This happened to a French team in 2004, as well as to German alpinist Ines Papert and Swiss alpinist-photographer Thomas Senf in 2013.
Among other climbers to have attempted the mountain is Canadian ice-climber Will Gadd.
For nearly 15 years, the most promising effort on the North Pillar was for that of Canadian climbers Paul Bride, John Furneaux, and Matt Maddaloni in 2006. Climbing in expedition style with many fixed ropes, the trio reached 5,800 meters up the center of the pillar after nine days of climbing.
Their highpoint lasted until 2019, when Roberts and the young Juho Knuutilla arrived in Nepal hungry to leave a mark. After scrapping their original plans to try the first ascent of the North Face of Chamlang—as the Czech alpinists Marek Holeček and Zdeněk “Hook” Hák beat them to the punch—Roberts and Knuutilla decided to try Tengkangpoche’s North Pillar.
Even above their highpoint, though, unknowns lie in wait.
“The altitude was 5,930m and the rock ahead [was] compact, completely devoid of cracks and unclimbable by pure means. Everywhere around us looked the same. Maybe sometimes there is ice, maybe not. Maybe there is another way, maybe not. The crux turned out to be right at the top of the pillar after all. Thus far, we had encountered difficulties up to 5.11 A3 M7,” Knuutilla wrote in the 2020 American Alpine Journal.
Roberts concurs with Knuutilla’s assessment. “There’s definitely still a huge question mark,” he says.
Knuutilla told Roberts that he had had his fill of Tengkangpoche, which is how Huey entered the equation. Huey and Roberts drew up multiple plans of attack for the upper headwall that turned Roberts and Knuutilla around in 2019, but never got high enough to test any of them.
Despite the complexity of Tengkangpoche’s North Pillar and two failed attempts, Roberts is undeterred and remains under the mountain’s spell. “You have to be really good at all the types of climbing to pull it off quickly, efficiently, and well, so it’s the ultimate challenge for me,” he says.
Others, including Colin Haley, have contacted Roberts about the North Pillar, curious about it and the possibility of teaming up, he says. But he and Huey are in it together now, already scheming for a return trip. They hope to come back fitter, stronger, faster.
“I got a message from Conrad Anker after I said we bailed again,” Roberts says. “Conrad said that for him two out of three trips to the Himalayas are always failures.” Case in point, the Shark’s Fin on Meru.
“So now I think I need to go back and finally do it the third time,” Roberts says with a chuckle.