By Dave Benton
(Published in Gripped magazine December 2000)
Maybe I'm just an impatient youth, but I just couldn't accept that the Himalayan peaks were only for high profile, high cost expeditions. They are just hills after all, high hills, but hills. What I needed was a climbing partner up for a stealth mission: low key, low cost, ninja wear only.
I found my accomplice using a notice board in Kathmandu. The same day I posted my note, a lanky chill-looking Brit named Chris showed up at my hotel room door at the Cozy Corner Lodge. Occasionally working in the London finance scene, Chris was a wannabe pro climber like myself. It only took us one dinner meeting to suss each other out and determine that we were both real climbers and not over-ambitious trekkers with rental gear.
In a dark corner of the Tashi Delek restaurant an attack plan slowly came into being. There's a valley in Nepal, actually there are many, but this particular one doesn't require prospective trekkers to obtain a permit. It runs up roughly west to east before turning left and smacking into the7000 metre-high picket fence that forms the Tibetan border. Four days walk up this valley lies a quaint little village of teahouses at about 4000m, backed by a7200m massif. A day's walk from this village, the last refuge of habitation and services, brings one to a cluster of abandoned stone shelters used only be yak herder and cheap stealth climbers. It would be the perfect headquarters, set in a virtual playground of alpine terrain.
As luck would have it, Chris and I had arrived in the heart of the post-monsoon trekking season and the weather was perfect. Our arrival in the upper valley brought a two-day onslaught of a storm, which conveniently dumped a metre of snow at 4000 m and more above. My hopes of frolicking through alpine meadows with smelly yaks and tubby Tibetan women named Heidi were dashed. We were in for some good news though.
On a two-day post-holing reconnaissance, we met Doug and Pat, who turned out to be two fellow undercover climbers from Canada. We were not alone. Standing in half a metre of snow our conversation began with the usual vague comments,
Doug and Pat were both from the Vancouver area. Doug, like Chris, was British by origin and tea drinking ability. He was a freelance computer nerd whose job allowed him to take long wanders in the Himalayas. Pat, however, is, or was, an accountant. He'd made a career limiting decision to take this trip but didn't seem to be regretting it yet.
Having similar plans in this arena of 6000 peaks, and being confident in each other's level of experience, we decided to posse up. Doug and Pat were somewhat more organized than we were, and had hired a full time porter and base camp manager. The latter is a particularly good idea as protection against theft. We agreed to split these small costs.
Ten days later. I was a crumpled mess of Gore-Tex, flattened to the snow by a gargantuan pack, quietly lamenting my lot in life and present chosen path to self-induced suffering.
I could only count my lucky stars that we were four people. A quarter of the horrendous trail breaking was about all I could handle. It was the kind of snow crust that gives you just enough steps on top to get your hopes up before you crash through to your waist in powder, and jam a foot between two boulders. With both feet in the hole, I paused for a few low-oxygen breaths before getting back up.
I hadn't exactly been honing up for the hills during the previous month of babe watching and clipping bolts in Thailand. That week, we'd put in a week on a mountain called Morimoto, whose real height is unknown. It didn't take long to discover that all four of our maps were best used as TP, and that only sixteen-hour sessions of extensive wandering were remotely productive in route-finding. The mountain proved to be more of a massif, which, placed in the Alps, would have had about ten different names. In seven days we ploughed a route up to within about 5om of one of its summits. It had been a good exercise in team building and self-starvation but damn frustrating mountaineering.
Gangchempo had a single, visible summit, and this qualified it as an obvious project. This lovely mountain dominated the head of the valley. It's smooth curves and fluted faces rose up to a peak at 6400m. To up the stakes even more, the beautiful hunk of ice and snow was an "Expedition Peak" of category "A". That means a whole paragraph of restrictions in the Mountain Rules Book, and a fee of 1500 U.S. dollars. If you get caught scamming the system, you get a $3000 fine, payable in US dollars, and a five-year ban from Nepal.
I'm not a criminal by nature, but the royalties and rules in the Himalayas these days are nearing extortion, and the governments of some Himalayan countries are notorious for skimming funds which are earmarked for the population. Also, I had arrived in Kathmandu with only four hundred bucks to my name.
Packing seven days of food, we left our headquarters and waded across the testicle-numbing torrent of Pani Kola to a gentle valley that led to base camp. The valley proved to be a minefield of snow covered creeks, boulders and willow shrubs but, thanks to a European expedition's escape trail, it went quickly. Having been snowed off the hill, their tracks stopped at base camp. As we were to find out later, their garbage didn't.
Gangchempo base camp is a little hollow where the terminal moraine meets the still unclimbed, sweet ass, West Ridge. The hollow is probably usually a lovely alpine meadow with a pleasant gurgling stream, but for us it was a snowy cold trap that resembled a dark corner of the planet Hoth. We had planned to move everything up to a higher site at the base of the valley glacier rather than leave stuff at base camp.
So that's how I found myself miserably wallowing under a ridiculous load in horrendous snow on the way to Camp One. The route to Camp One followed the ridges of the lateral moraines up and around to the south side of the mountain. At around 4800 m, (these are approximate heights, as we didn't have an altimeter), the moraine bumps into the lower slopes of Gangchempo proper. Right about where the steepness began I slumped down in the snow and prayed to God that we'd camp there. Doug and I had had enough, and the other two conceded.
From there, we figured it'd go in three days, alpine style or not at all. So far, the weather had been holding out. The next morning, some casual arguments ensued as to exactly what lightweight entails. The five-kilo mountain tent stayed behind and the two single wall coffins came along. It was going to get cozy.
Like most faces in the area, the south face of Gangchempo features some mellow snow slopes sporting rocky chunks that rise to meet a hanging glacier, which oozes off the summit. The snow slopes went quickly as we zigzagged around the majority of the outcrops. At someone else's Camp One, we stopped to dig through their garbage. We found instant Cappuccino packages, hard candies, soups, and a can of salmon. It pisses me off that people leave garbage, but at least we could eat some of it. As the Beastie Boys would say, booty's booty: "Professor, what's another word for pirate treasure? Why, I think its booty, booty, booty." Team Booty was formed and in ill effect.
The face of the glacier looked like it came from a pamphlet for Alaskan cruises: not something to linger under. The icy blue, truck sized seracs looked ready to squash us. The slope below, littered with the oversized ice cubes, was evidence of entropy's evil deeds. I wondered how big a glass of scotch I'd need to float the chunk that my crampons were attempting to bite into.
Past the ice cube fallout zone, we found a short ramp that provided access to the glacier. Continuing to pick up useful garbage, AKA booty Chris, a cheap British climber who is in desperate need of new gear, scored a nice pair of gaiters that were frozen into the ice.
The glacier was steep, and had many seracs. In the middle of the glacier, at around 5500m, we were faced with the prospect of wandering through a vertical labyrinth of seracs in the dark and chose instead to stop. Camp Two was set up in a spot with relatively little objective danger, which we hoped was not over a crevasse. Pat probed around a bit with a tent pole. I couldn't be bothered and just dug a platform.
The next day was short, but not having the gift of foresight, we left way too early and froze our asses off before the sun hit. Doug's crappy zipper thermometer said minus twenty, so give or take a few degrees, it was cold.
In Kathmandu I had asked a buddy whether I should go with Alaskan gear or Rockies gear. He said,"Rockies." I desperately missed my fat Dry Loft sleeping bag and my plastic boots. My single leather boots weren't cutting it. I'll always remember sitting in the snow with one foot thawing in Pat's armpit and the other in Doug's. It was kind of a Maharajah-style vibe.
Anyhow where the glacier levels out, at around 5800 m we set up Camp Three, our high camp. That afternoon was spent in a meeting, in which we decided which bump on the ridge above us was highest, and the best way to get there.
At three am the alarm went off and we farted around with oxygen-deprived stoves while procrastinating for several hours. The sleeping bag to Gore-Tex transition is always hard. Team Booty was chompin' at the bit, raring to go by about five thirty or six.
The south glacier on Gangchempo is born in a massive basin formed by the encircling arms of the South-south-east and the West Ridges. Above the floor of the bowl, fluted 40 to 6o degree walls towered up to 400m and blotted out the early morning sun. At the center, in the back of the basin, about 500 metres above us, was what we hoped was the summit. Standing in the middle, under those towering walls, in the early morning light, was one of those embracing experiences that is both beautiful and terrifying.
By the time the sun hit us, we were hard into it, with both axes drawn. The headwall was about 60 degrees and the perfect mix of ice and neve. Putting in a picket or two every rope length, we simulclimbed in pairs, sharing the gear. My hands thawed quickly from the movement and the dazzling sun but my feet seemed happier to stay frozen.
Three hundred metres of sweet, sweet climbing later, Pat disappeared over a lip of rotten snow. I knew we were close, because the ridgelines all seemed to drop away beneath my heels. The exposure was awesome. I followed Pat and Doug's tracks, staying on the safe side of what we presumed to be a massive cornice. Slowly wandering up, I tried to scrap some oxygen from the rarefied air for my aching lungs. That was when I regretted my Nepali hash acclimatization plan. Then suddenly the whole mountain was at my feet. That was it, the summit. Three corniced ridges joined hands to form a flat area about ten metres in diameter at 6400m. It'd be a great picnic area if vehicle accessible. It was about noon, the sky was a deep royal blue, and life was good.
Roped to a couple of pickets, we all wandered around taking hero shots and waving prayer flags. I sat down to take a fix with my GPS and had the ceremonial summit chocolate bar. I could finally check off the line on my List Of Things To Do that reads, "climb a 6000 + m. peak in the Himalayas before you're 25." Sitting on top, with Tibet to the north, and the local topography at my frozen feet, felt a way I can only describe as "Chris Bonington,"... it felt wicked.
Going down the headwall sucked, as you'd expect, but was uneventful. In the bowl below we had passed what looked suspiciously like booty Now that we'd summitted, it was time to investigate. The little piece of yellow nylon showing at the surface had a North Face label. Hmmm. Since we were all kind-hearted environmentalists looking to clean up the hill, and it was only three o'clock, the digging began.
The excavation was intense and extensive. Pat led the way, and others followed. Clawing at the snow with ice axes and scooping with helmets, the treasures were slowly revealed. On video it would have been way better than that lame PBS "Treasures of the Pharaohs" show. The booty haul was big. However, being saints, not martyrs, we couldn't take it all. The catalogue of treasures included two tents, a sleeping bag, two pads, mittens, an ice axe, ice screws, carabiners, a cooking pot and a well-stocked first aid kit. I would have liked the 2000m of 8mm static line but couldn't carry anymore.
At high camp I crashed hard while Chris, God bless him, volunteered to cook up our remaining food for dinner. It'd been a good day. My toe felt funny but it was warming and I managed to suppress the curiosity until the next morning. There's not much you can do with warm frostbitten toes, so in the morning I tried to forget about my dark purple digits and spent half an hour trying to jam my feet into my frozen boots.
Getting down was pretty good, if a little painful. The pain came from both my feet and the horribly large pack I was carrying. It was the first time I had ever descended with a bigger pack than I carried up. There were scattered complaints from the crew but we all realized that the sale of our heavy-ass booty would more than pay for the trip.
So, overall, Team Booty had a good session in the hills. We climbed a beautiful mountain and scored large. Anyone want some cheap gear? My big toe is also recovering and I get to keep all of it. In fact, I hope to squeeze it into my rock shoes in a couple of days for some Australian cracks, and hopefully the purple part will fall off.
Incidentally, the month long trip, not including gear sales, or airfare, cost Chris and I about two hundred and fifty bucks US each. The Himalayas were just hills after all.Back to the top Back to Expeditions
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