November 18, 2010

A Fine Peak

by Garry Smith :

Graham ‘Streaky’ Desroy and Garry Smith have just returned from an attempt on the west ridge of Gangchenpo (6387m) in the Langtang Himal. An interesting time to be mountaineering in Nepal after one of the heaviest and most prolonged monsoon periods for years. Here Garry gives a brief, personal insight into climbing a not so frequented peak from the perspective of a Himalayan first timer.

It could be easy to form a misconception about Himalayan climbing. Most searches bring up the same images of ‘town like’ base camps, trails of climbers jugging up fixed lines or summit shots of billowing, down suited blokes jubilant behind oxygen masks. But what about an alpine style ascent of a Himalayan peak? Again, just as easy to come up with an inaccurate picture and think maybe it would simply be an extension of European alpinism. Perhaps just like climbing a big Oberland peak but with a few extra metres stacked on top. None of these resembled reality.

Trying to find a suitable mountaineering objective was initially a thankless task: scouring the lists of permitted Nepali expedition peaks, pouring over Google earth and speaking to anyone who may be ‘in the know’. The moment an image of Gangchenpo appeared on screen it was a no brainer. This was our mountain.

Gangchenpo is a fine peak by anyone’s standards. In fact classically beautiful, with elegant sweeping ridges draped with snow flutings. It was first climbed in 1990 and subsequently has had a further 24 official climbing expeditions sanctioned (although there are likely to have been many more illegal attempts) - a surprisingly small number considering just how jaw droppingly stunning Gangchenpo is. Our target was the mountain’s west ridge, a route for which we managed to track down the first ascentionist, Australian Steve Williamson. Steve provided crucial information on a way through the initial rock barrier guarding the base of the ridge.

I’m no stranger to ferreting around on alpine mountains but the scale of Gangchenpo was way out of proportion to anything I’d experienced before. The perception of scale was further heightened by the remoteness and the certain knowledge of being alone on the mountain. Strangely the lack of telecommunications, initially an uncomfortable thought, became a liberating feature rather than contributing to the sense of commitment. Adding a kind of eeriness to the climb was the mountain’s total silence, only interspersed by the familiar and reassuring call of choughs or the occasional sound of far off serac falls.

I did a fair amount of training when preparing for this trip, way more than normal, including runs up Snowdon. Whereas Streaky’s preparation was basically cutting his smoking down to ten roll-ups per day, some surfing and a few late night TV sessions watching the Commonwealth Games (mainly the women’s track events).

These different strategies produced remarkably contrasting results. Above 5500m life was sucked from me, every upward movement paid for by gasps and a mandatory minute motionless. Conversely Streaky seemed to scoot around with impunity, giving the impression he was born up there. Ah well, the injustices of life and the indiscriminate nature of acclimatisation.

The terrain between our highest camp and the summit was entirely on snow and looked to be mostly Scottish grade II, with possibly the odd step of III. This is likely to have seduced us into soloing on our first summit push. At first light (way too cold to start any earlier) and without discussion, we just blithely headed off unroped. I’m still surprised I lasted three hours before getting the fear, big time. With sneaky repetition the quality of the snow kept veering marginally onto the wrong side of okay, causing the occasional heart stopping collapse of foot placements. My sense of vulnerability shot off the Richter Scale after fumbling a snow stake and watching it glide like a mini bobsleigh down a 50 degree concave slope, momentarily catching air before dropping 1000m to the glacier below. We bailed.

Our second summit attempt was mainly pitched, using homemade snow stakes as psychological runners. Good for the nerves but too slow to have any meaningful chance of summiting and getting down before nightfall. We opted for a turnaround point of the west summit (6100m), so close but still an eternity away from the main summit. This was a proper grown up decision and by no means did either of us feel let down. In fact quite the opposite - we were on top of our first proper Himalayan peak. Anyway, it was time for Streaky’s afternoon nap.

If there is one simple piece of advice for any prospective Himalayan excursion – it’s got to be, get yourself a good local agent. Someone on the ground in Nepal to help negotiate all potential, logistical stumbling blocks; arranging land transport, hiring porters, sourcing supplies and most importantly, to cut a swathe through the immense bureaucracy of permits and fees. Apologies if this may seem like a shameless plug (which it is) but a man who can make the most complex of itineraries go smoothly is Loben We’ll be using him again next time.

Photos: top to bottom - Streaky at approx 6000m on the west ridge of Gangchenpo; Gangchenpo draped with snow flutings. Garry and Streaky's high point, the west summit, is obvious down and right of the main peak; Streaky Desroy studying the local flora on the approach to base camp; At the base of the west ridge heading for the high camp. The large mountain in the background is Langtang Limrung (7234m). All © Garry Smith.
Garry Smith is a North Wales based mountain instructor and a member of Mountain Instructors Community

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