SHISHAPANGMA CENTRAL SUMMIT
(8117 metres) (2 members summit)
Story and Photos by SEAN BURCH
Sean on the summit.
Our team in basecamp. Sean Burch, Dan Mazur, Pemba Tashi, and Nawang Tendup.
Sean Burch's Shishapangma Story:
Two and a half minutes. That was the amount of time I spent gasping for air in the cataclysmic winds of the Himalayas having reached my first summit of the 8000-meter peak, Shishapangma, in Tibet. My partner Dan Mazur and I were over 8,000-meters above sea level and it was 8:30 in the evening. A wall of cumulus clouds had overtaken Everest to the south, and had begun slowly wafting towards us. The sun's warming glow had all but disappeared. In order to get here the fundamental rule of high altitude mountaineering had been breached. In alpine mountaineering, the standard protocol for turn around time during a summit bid was mid-afternoon. We knew full well that a late summit would up the ante for potential frostbite, a bivouac, and temperature drops so below the barometer freezing to death was a possible outcome; we had decided to tempt the weather gods. Dan and I had spent the last 12 hours trudging upward at a snail's pace from our high camp above 7,000-meters without any rest days since departing Advanced Base Camp (ABC) 72 hours earlier. We had succumbed to the lure of summit fever, and if the weather did not remain stable, we would be in for a long, desperate descent back to our high camp. I jammed my frostbitten right hand into the side pocket of my expedition suit and unveiled a banner with the words "Will You Marry Me" for my girlfriend Gabrielle waiting at home. I had been thinking of this unique proposal opportunity for the past three months, and now it was finally here. A surprised Dan snapped one picture with my cheap, instant camera since the other two cameras I carried were useless, having frozen shut on our ascent. Psychologically and physically burnt, we now had to descend into the frozen darkness that lay below.
I had concocted the plan of climbing Shishapangma five months before my departure. I was looking for a mountain that would be away from the mass crowds of climbers I'd heard were on Cho Oyu, another 8,000-meter peak often attempted by mountaineers looking to enter the high altitude arena. To me, mountain climbing is a soul-searching adventure, and the less people to break ones concentration and invade their personal space, the better. Almost every thought and action began to predicate around my expedition. I ate, breathed, and dreamed the upcoming climb. Although this was my first attempt at an 8,000-meter peak, I felt my past experience with acclimatization, and previous success in high mountains of the world would aid my chances. I had been mountaineering on the continents of North America, South America, Asia, and even achieved the world record for jump rope at altitude by jump-roping on the summit of Aconcagua, in Argentina.
The physical and mental training to get me ready involved a consistent mind over matter routine of at least 2 hours a day sweat fests bringing my body to various extremes of exhaustion. Being an endurance fitness trainer, I unwittingly put my students through weekly jaunts of plyometrics, jump-roping and other exercise concoctions that would aid in my preparation for the climb. When it came to training my martial art students I channeled my energy into their personalized regimes of Jeet Kune Do and the fourth power. This power being that what the mind believes, the body must follow. How true this concept relates to both mountaineering and the mental aptitude of a well-rounded student in martial arts. Oh yes, and a constant mixture of confidence, self-talk, bravado, and weekend shots of Jim Beam helped as well.
It had been an aspiration to climb in the Himalayas since reading Reinhold Messner's memoir, Free Spirit, when I was in my early 20's. Nearly every book read since has been related to mountaineering in some realm, and I found myself subsisting on a daily dose of words from such mountaineers as Twight, Child, and Krakauer. Living in suburbia outside Washington, D.C., I tended not to cross too many paths of individuals who experienced high altitude mountaineering, nor cared to try. The only question they wanted answered upon my returns from traveling abroad was, "Did you summit?" Before I left for Tibet I frequently heard comments from friends ranging from, "Are you crazy?" to "What kind of vacation is that?" I pondered their words and tried to reconcile thoughts of subjecting myself to weeks of exceedingly cruel punishment, inexplicable aches and pains...all to experience what many people deemed as an act of stupidity. It seemed insane to climb a mountain that reached a height that jetliners fly at. And as the plane pulled away from the terminal at Ronald Regan National Airport I knew an arduous task was awaiting me, and I would be pulling from all my reserves right down to the marrow.
The approach to Shishapangma began in Kathmandu, Nepal. Kathmandu is Nepal's capital city and the hub for most climbers attempting peaks in the Himalayan range within Nepal and Tibet. The city's pollution was at often times unbearable, and when I roamed outside for just a few hours after arriving at Tribhuvan International Airport, a layer of dirt stuck to my skin like an over-sexed octopus. Although polluted, Kathmandu had a comfortable allure that made me feel at ease and content, like I belonged there or had been there in a past life. Teenage Nepalese were constantly trying to get my attention; curious about what I was doing in Nepal, whether or not I liked their country and what life was like in the Western world.
I met Dan at our hotel located on a little corner street of Thamel, and we immediately began to list and retrieve the essential articles of equipment and food needed for the expedition. Dan is a world-class high altitude mountaineer, having climbed seven of the fourteen 8,000m peaks including Everest and K2. One might expect his demeanor to be somewhat boastful and outgoing, however the opposite is true. Dan is perhaps one of the most soft-spoken, laid back individual's I know; his demeanor blend perfectly with my intense and determined attitude. A mixture I thought would suit us well on Shish.
One important matter of business I needed to attend to in Nepal was obtaining a visa to enter Tibet. The Chinese rule Tibet, and in order to climb there, I needed a Chinese visa. No visa, and my expedition would end before it ever could begin. Murari, our expedition organizer, had to hire a young man to wait outside the Chinese embassy in Kathamandu all night, otherwise the chance to acquire a visa would be nil, considering the number of tourists vying for one far outnumbered the visa's being processed. I arrived about a half hour before the doors opened. Hoards of tourists huddled together like veal all waiting to run like bulls once the doors unbolted. When the doors finally did open, Murari and I rushed for the counter, knocking people to the side before slamming my passport down on the counter. After much begging and pleading, the permit was placed in hand.
The morning of our departure, I was awakened not by the beep of my watch alarm, but rather a car bomb that exploded outside my hotel in the center of Thamel. Bleary-eyed, I grabbed my camcorder and took video of locales trying to extinguish a firebomb that was within 50 meters of my window. Men and women were throwing buckets of water from their rooftops on the blaze, however this seemed only to feed the red and orange jagged knives as they shot higher into the clear night sky. I later found out Nepalese sympathizers of the Nepal Communist Party (Maoist insurgents) had planted the car bomb. This type of terrorist activity has been occurring in Nepal for some time. There was and still is a building sympathy for the Communist party there, and the government is just starting to take action and treat this as a real threat to their nation's sovereignty. Two hours later after the city appeared to calm down and the fire subsided, Dan and I crept out of Kathmandu in our hired bus loaded with all our gear. As we drove out of town, the city was back to an eerie dead calm, as if nothing had transpired just a few short hours ago.
The only way to get to Tibet from Nepal was by the Friendship Highway; a muddle of bumps, pavement, gravel, and windy dirt road that lead to the gateway of Tibet. Along route our drivers decided to use our Nepali truck, an elaborately painted vehicle with Hindu symbols and garish scenes, as a taxi service. We gave rides to Nepalese soldiers, schoolchildren, local villagers, and anyone else who seemed to be on the side of the road waving their arms for our bus to stop. The end of the road was in Kodari, on the border of Nepal leading into Tibet. There we hired another truck through some teenage Nepalese to transport our equipment, food and take us across the Bhote Koshi river by way of the Friendship bridge, up the long, hilly, muddy, pothole road to Zhangmu, the gateway portal into Tibet.
Due to circumstances beyond our control, (the Tibetan Mountaineering Association's (TMA) liaison officer was taking a hot shower), Dan and I were required to stand on the Nepal side of the bridge for over four hours, until finally the "go-ahead" note was administered to the Chinese Army officer sitting at a wooden desk guarding the entrance in to Tibet. Two teenage Chinese soldiers stood nearby, one occasionally reeling over holding his stomach, as if he had experienced a late night of drinking. They were a miserable looking crew all together, but life in a border town can do that to you I guess.
Zhangmu was everything you could not hope for in ones first real taste of Tibet. I could not help but ingest the dreadful smells and lifestyle the people who live in third-world countries accommodate. The vile town included such lovely sites as heaps of trash along various sections of the steep Himalayan hillside and a town bathroom consisting of a concrete drainage ditch with shit everywhere that was behind a local brothel teeming of women who appeared "never" to take a day off.
For many Chinese and Tibetans living here, this lifestyle was all they knew. Very different than the industrialized countries of the West who's numerous synthetic aids make living less complicated, simplistic, more efficient, and prettier. I believe these very benefits the West "enjoys" actually facilitate an undue, unneeded, lazy, stress factory of people. By the time I would arrive to ABC, the fuzzy, murkiness interior walls of my American lifestyle had melt away, and the real me I like to think emerged clean on the other side. I had not felt this free in my mind in years.
After switching in Zhangmu to another vehicle, now owned by the TMA, we were transported up through the one road to Nyalam, a rustic little town at 4,000 meters, and situated at the forefront of the Tibetan plateau. We resided there for 2 days hiking and acclimatizing on the mountains near town. I spent the evenings in a tea room, which was actually the cleanest place in town. Dan and I would sip tea, converse, read, and on occasion hand out bits of cheese to the little children begging outside who lived in an orphanage nearby. They would scream and grasp at your hands like hungry dogs, so we had to be quick and drop chunks into the swarm or else be mauled. The last afternoon after a hike I sat down and began talking with a young Tibetan who ran the daily operations of the tearoom and spoke broken English. He told me of his ideas to save money and purchase the establishment from the owner, and turn the tea room into a mountaineer hangout with it's walls stamped with mountaineer's photos who had visited there.
"They are great men, mountaineers...friendly," he said proudly. He spoke of working on 2 expeditions on the North side of Everest as a cook in past years, and then rushed away to the backroom. He soon returned holding a North Face t-shirt, which he claimed Alex Lowe, the renowned American climber, gave to him in October of 1999. The shirt and other clothes were given in exchange for shelter while Lowe stayed there for a few days aiding a sick friend. "Mr. Alex relaxed, sipped coffee, ate food, read books, told stories...very nice man," he said with a friendly smile. "He gave me 2 books that I have at home. Shame Mr. Alex had to die though, I thought he was funny."
A shame indeed. Alex returned to Shishapangma's South face a few days later with a climbing partner, and soon after perished in an unfortunate avalanche with mountaineer David Bridges.
Nyalam also allowed us the chance to converse with other climbers who were mostly headed to either Shishapangma, Cho Oyu, or Everest. Dan and I met two who were already on their way back from the North side of Everest due to their strife with pulmonary edema. They looked so weary and worn out we happily gave them a few tablets of Codeine to help control their coughs. One of the climbers was clutching the left side of his ribcage where he had broken a rib, a gift from Everest's North Col.
Shishapangma, known in Tibetan as "the mountain over the grassy plain", is the only 8,000-meter peak to be wholly in Tibet. The Chinese first climbed it in 1964 via the North route, and the last mountain to be climbed of the fourteen 8000-meter peaks. No other foreign mountaineers were allowed to climb it until the Chinese opened its Tibetan borders in 1980. Dan and I were attempting the same north route as the Chinese, now considered the "Normal" route. The technical challenge of the "Normal" route is not too complex, and mostly consists of a long snow slog at high altitude with several short sections of mixed and steep climbing.
Upon arriving at Shishapangma's base camp at 5,500meters, some not-so-friendly Chinese food from Nyalam began making a surreal dance through my intestines and left me with diarrhea for 2 days, wasted, tent-bound, and with no energy. During those days lying in my tent I would peer at Shish's omniscient statue, which stood out prominently within the vast Tibetan plateau.
As soon as I felt halfway capable, I decided to trek in to ABC following the yaks, who were carrying all our gear that would be providing us food, warmth and shelter for the next month. The burly beasts, which reminded me of those creatures out of "Star Wars", were used to working at high altitudes, and were able to carry 60kg of gear on their backs, leaving me to lug only a few items in my rucksack. An omnivore for the open country, the light load offered me the dispensation to relax and enjoy the trek in, and view the stark barrenness of the Tibetan plateau. The terrain blended various red, orange, and brown colors in to hills that seemed to go on forever in every direction, as if I was trekking on Mars. The remoteness of my surroundings overwhelmed me. The detachment of society combined with an utter feeling of smallness; a fly on the wall of life. I was a miniscule molecule in the vast pursuit of adventure, and damn thankful for the opportunity.
ABC had its share of colorful and unique characters. The well-known American high altitude mountaineer, Ed Viesters, and his climbing partner Finnish Veikka Gustafsson were there, and had been climbing and acclimatizing for 2 weeks on the mountain before our arrival. Ed was attempting to reach his 12th 8,000-meter summit. Adrian Popovich, otherwise known as "Adrian the Romanian", arrived a week after Dan and I did. He had achieved mini-celebrity status in the early 1980's when Jon Krakauer wrote about Adrian's attempts to climb Denali with no previous high altitude experience, no tent, stove, or snow shovel, and a dreadful temper. Adrian was on Shishapangma alone, and attempting a snowboard descent from the summit. Dan and I talked with him regularly when we would pass by his tent at the various camps, and Adrian was always hilarious and jovial. It had seemed the years of climbing on high mountains had dissolved some of Adrian's brash and loud behavior demonstrated in his 20's.
No more than 30 minutes upon setting up our ABC dining tent, Dan and I were sequestered by "Diego the Spaniard" (i.e. young Adrian clone), whose macho proclamation and mercenary attitude of a solo attempt of Shishapangma made us quick to decide we did not want to be climbing anywhere near him. Being considerate mountaineers, we obliged to have Diego sit down with us and enjoy a hot meal of rice and cabbage soup considering his Tibetan cook had "lost" his cooker and was sprawled out in his tent ill. We were soon to learn Diego had food supplies to last him barely a few weeks, no shovel, and only two tents. He did carry though a whole rucksack of bullshit. As planned, Dan and I kept away from Diego on the mountain, and he ended up tagging along with an American and Mexican climber.
Dan and I had hired a Tibetan to watch our gear at ABC while we were climbing the mountain; enter Mr. Noa, who was recommended by the Liaison of the TMA at base camp. He was a bright, affable, intelligent soul whose dry, smoky black eyes and marijuana smile would light up at the thought of a business proposition to sell his jewelry. He was anxious to help and always interested in learning English phrases that Dan and I would blurt out from time to time. No matter how much I tried to teach him English, the only words I managed to have Noa pronounce correctly were "shitty day".
Noa made daily treks over the jumbled blocks of scree and unmarked graves of climbers who had perished from previous years expeditions to get our water used to cook and clean while at ABC. One grave of a Chinese climber who had perished the previous Fall lay only 50 yards from our camp, a jolting reminder that the mountain's obstacles could easily swallow you whole at any moment. The mountain could be a beautiful array of sunshine, or a mean-spirited, fire-breathing dragon that unleashed it's numerous arms of destruction within minute's time.
Noa was a recognized figure at ABC with other Tibetan yak herders, so they would visit our ABC tent from time to time. Each herder's time-worn face with dark chocolate leather skin reminded me of men and women in their 50's. I soon discovered almost all the Tibetans were only in there 20's and 30's. Each wore old, weathered and stained clothing with belted ponchos of yak skin and carried blankets made of yak fur. They would constantly stare at Dan and I, watching our every move in the cooking tent like the curious fascination of children. Life on the Tibetan plateau showed it's scars through those who were chosen to live in the region, and living a long life was not a common occurrence.
As each day flowed into the next, life began to break down into its most simple forms. None of life's problems tugged at your soul to fill in with stress, so what remained was only the mountain and you. The mountain began to break down my soul with her altitude and weather, and with each step higher another lost breath squeezed out of me. My mind started listening to the people back home who had questioned my reasons for taking this trip. The doubting questions tumbled over me like dominoes. Why am I climbing? Why spend all this time, money, and effort in pursing the top of a mountain that's glory resided in a few short moments on its summit?
After almost two weeks acclimatizing and placing camps higher up on the mountain at various snow plateaus, Dan and I felt as if an endeavor for the summit was in order.
The route to camp 1 had been providing me a humbling, morale-chopping workload of humping gear up a thousand feet of scree to the head of the icefall. This time would be no different. The two hour hike through the scree field was a hedonistic routine. Once through, I encountered a mesmerizing cavernous blue icefall, a holistic venture that deemed equivalent to entering into a nature synagogue. The icefall was an ever-expanding labyrinth with shooting pinnacles that were ramparts shielding Dan and I from the gale-force winds. We had set up camp 1 next to Viesters and Gustafsson's tent about a thousand feet above the icefall on a mid-level plateau. The route to the North ridge involved establishing two more camps at various snow plateaus.
Dan and I established Camp 3 on the base of the North ridge climbing by way of fixed lines left from previous expeditions. We arrived late in the day, and as we crested the ridge the raging winds decimated our words to mere sounds of inaudible garble. It was as if a locomotive was barreling down on me with intermittent flashes of deafening screams and punishing hits. My body began to shake uncontrollably no matter how hard I focused on keeping the cold air from devouring me. I was barely holding it together, relinquishing to the omen of oncoming hypothermia. Dan hollered at me to throw on my expedition suit, which once accomplished, helped subside the chattering teeth. Plenty of mugs full of warm liquid and soup in our tent revived my spirit. I had read that the higher one goes in altitude, the less of an appetite you inherit; this was not the case with me. I powered down as many soups as would fill my stomach and hoped the calories provided me with the fuel to keep my furnace burning for the summit bid.
When Dan and I headed out the next morning for the summit the blustery wind decided not to give us a much-needed repose, however, the sky was a filtered, cloudless blue, so we took this as a good premonition. The north ridge was interspersed with patches of rock, ice, and cavernous snow that made my feet feel as if I was post-holing through quicksand. As the day progressed, it became obvious that if Dan and I were going to summit, it would be late. The quagmire of indecision of whether to push on or return to high camp brought me out of my catatonic like drunkenness, and my brain began to rapidly electrify the muscles with pulsating adrenaline. I would not be turned back. I would not be denied. My goggles kept fogging to the point where I could not see without taking them off. Each passing gust brought a tearful wind flush against my face leaving me utterly numb and as my speech began to slur.
The fluid line between what seemed plausible and impossible bled together in one long line of penetrating needle points that stabbed through my body. As Dan and I climbed higher and higher towards the apex in the fading sun thoughts of obtaining the summit flooded my mind. I wanted to propose to my girlfriend, and show her the two things in life that meant the most to me could be blended into one. The final steps to the summit were upon us, and for the first time in days, a smile emerged from my chapped lips.
I had done it! The heavens of the Himalayas lay before me, as if I could jump from peak to peak in endless bounds. Hypoxia was having its way with me. Pictures were taken and I was extremely tired and cold, like a dazed fighter who just finished fifteen rounds of boxing. However, my summit journey was only half over. The best of the worst was yet to come.
The light had faded quicker than my eyes could focus upon it. The sky broke into shards of charcoal glass leaving the cold to pierce through my expedition suit and solidify my soul. As the purple sun distant itself from Dan and I, a feeling of desperate anxiety overwhelmed me. My steps became deep cataclysmic steps towards the unknown that waited below.
I descended no more than 10 meters before the sun completely vanished. We had stretched our bodies too tight, and now they were ready to snap. The entire rest of the descent I could not feel my fingers. I stimulated them by hitting my mittens together to keep the blood flowing to my hands when not gripped to the ice axes. I believe this saved almost certain loss of my fingers. Each time I buried the axes into the snow and ice I jammed the last three fingers on each hand into the steep angle of the ridge. The equivalent of sticking ones fingers in a box of ice cubes repeatedly for hours. The caveats of an impending storm was nearly on top of us, however, concentration during the downclimb was utmost essential to survival. Had our luck run out?
I was overcome with leg spasms and with every painstakingly step my wiry body felt as if it was going to collapse. No more philosophy now, only descend, descend...I wanted gravity to take charge and return me to the sanctuary of high camp. Within sections of rock I forego kicking steps and began to glissade down certain sections of the route using my crampons to bounce off the rocks and ice tools for brakes in case I picked up too much speed. The ridge seemed to go on forever into a terminal onyx abyss. Dan and I thought about bivouacking, but decided it was in our best interest to keep moving to stay warm. A sufficient order of self-preservation ought to be injected into a mountaineer's system at high altitude, because when it comes down to it, your soul and mind are what gives you the ability to achieve the seemingly unfeasible, and conquer the belligerent environment and exhausting climbing one endures on the descent of an 8,000-meter mountain.
We finally arrived back to high camp in a frozen state of body and soul, 17 hours after zipping the tent fly shut. We were thankful for the hot liquids and warm sleeping bags. Outside, I could hear the wind striking our tent like repeated snaps of a whip; the storm had arrived. Once I defrosted I took off my gloves and immediately noticed six of my fingertips were completely bone white. Too tired to care, my mind plummeted into blocks of shallow sleep interrupted by wheezing and uncontrollable coughs that kept me from getting much rest. My throat was sore, there was an aching compression sensation in my chest, and a mild case of pulmonary edema had set in.
The next day we were slow in breaking down camp, however the angelic sun's aperture through the clouds helped warm are spirits. The storm had passed, but we knew we had to get down immediately. Descending the fixed lines from camp 3 I could tell my body had bonked. Every molecule of available energy had seemingly escaped through my pores from the previous day's summit bid.
Jubilation over my accomplishment occurred only after the safe return to ABC, and the celebratory meal of sufficient cans of tuna fish and Tibetan sweet tea. The corners of my mouth, lips, and fingers were shredded, left cracking and bleeding. The first night back at ABC I went out after dinner and stared blankly at the silvery shadows that spread arms open across Shishapangma in the distance. Dan and I had climbed the mountain in only 16 days from arriving to ABC, and now it was almost as if the whole experience had been a delusion. The mountain was alive in the shimmering moonlight, and I could feel her breath brush against my face. The adventure was all about being one with the mountain, being given the chance to test my abilities and fortitude and an opportunity to walk on her sacred earth. She had given me the gift to get to the summit and back down safely. The fundamentally pure virtues of Shishapangma were fully infused.
I returned home and surprised the hell out of Gabrielle, first telling her I did not summit due to my brown and blackened fingertips, then handing her the summit proposal photograph a day later as we walked by the lake near my childhood home. We married five months later on Mt. Whitney. My close friend, Frank Oviedo, who had climbed with me on Aconcagua performed the service, given authority to do so by the Deputy Commissioner of Marriage in Inyo County, California, in the town of Independencia. Reverend for-the-day Frank read the vows to Gabrielle and I just as the sun was hitting the upper rock formations of Whitney and the surrounding peaks. We celebrated our honeymoon by reaching the summit on Halloween, the day after the Sierra's first large snowstorm of the season. We had the mountain all to ourselves, post-holing to our thighs in virgin snow, a new path being blazed in life, the way I dream our marriage will be.
My return to the humdrum of daily living and work has made me reflect on life, my climb of Shishapangma, and high-altitude mountaineering in general. I came to realize why I enjoy the high mountains. When I look at seemingly ordinary tasks as holding Gabrielle's hand, hugging her, kissing her, seeing family, my niece and nephew smiles, moments in time...nothing is more precious than those experiences. I appreciate it so much more after returning from an expedition. I need those episodes on the mountains, which in some cases are life or death, to open my eyes to the smaller, mundane incidences of living.
I thought more about my friends and questions they now raise to me; "Was it worth it? Was it worth getting severe frostbite? Was it worth the pain?" I listened to the questions I had for myself: Did climbing an 8,000-meter peak live up to the grandeur I had foreseen, in the pages of books I read for so many years? Months of training my body and mind, thousands of hours sweating in the gym and outside for what purpose? I risked my life just to prove to myself I had the self-preservation, the fortitude to climb one of the highest mountains in the world? I proposed on the summit just to surprise my girlfriend at home? Was it worth it?
Those of us who choose to climb in the skeletal air that resides in the high mountains know the answer. Or so I choose to believe. Frank's closing words of advice for Gabrielle and I during our wedding ceremony were from John Muir:
"Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean."
Amen. (Sean T. Burch, 2002 3/14/2003
Dan in the tent.
Dan on the final pitch. Climbing alpine-style. Roped up, with ice screws and pickets for protection.
The view looking to the "main summit" from the "central summit".
And thanks to the Tibet Expedition School, with whom we joined together to climb this peak: