NOJIN TANGLA SOUTH FACE
(7117 metres) (2 members summit) (first western and Tibetan ascent)
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Summit Day, Kate in high camp, under the head wall.
An Ascent of a Remote 7,000m Peak in Tibet.
Authors: Keith Affleck, Kate Brown, Dan Mazur, Jon Otto
Name: Nonjin Tanglha, Nyainqe Tanglha, Nianqing Tanggula, Nojin Tangla.
Height: West Peak - 23,516 feet/7,126 meters, Central Peak - 23,486feet /7,117 meters
Location: 910E, 300N
It was 4am on a chilly Kathmandu morning when we staggered out, bleary eyed to board the bus that would take our gear and us to the Tibetan border on the first leg of our expedition to the central peak of Nojin Tangla.
Our small international team comprising Liz Carr (USA), Kate Brown (Australia) and Keith Affleck (UK), was sponsored by Ozark Gear, organised and led by US mountaineer Dan Mazur and Jon Otto heading for the seldom visited Nojin Tangla range to the North of the Tibetan capital, Lhasa.
Arriving at the Tibetan border, Kate mentioned that she was pleasantly surprised that a Chinese policeman smiled at us. She would later recall that that was one of few smiles from Chinese officials. As we bumped along the Friendship "Highway", the contrast between the mud huts of the locals, and the Chinese buildings of white tiles and blue glass, was stark. Along this route the food is solely Chinese. We were one of the first groups of Westerners along the highway that season, which ensured a warm welcome from the locals. We had awsome views of the great peaks of Everest, Cho Oyu and Shisapangma, rising abruptly from the dusty plains. After jolting along dirt roads for days, many of us intermittently "heaving" enroute, we made Lhasa. We had a chance to visit the famous Potala, quite resplendent, freshly painted and resored for the benefit of tourists.
Here we met up with two Tibetan climbing assistants, Nwang and Penba, students of the Tibetan High-Altitude Training School. This School, started in 1999, takes in a handful of young Tibetan men from small villages around the Himalaya, and trains them to be climbing assistants, porters and cooks. Jon works with the school during his free time. Nwang and Penba joined our team as interns, not only to porter loads but also to learn technical skills. Their initial shy demeanor around our team members transformed into a comforable style near the end of the climb.
Our objective was not one of the big 8000'ers but the central peak of Mt. Nonjin Tanglha (7117 meters). The appeal of a 7000-meter peak in Tibet is that most have never been climbed. Rarely climbed Nonjin Tanglha has seen only a handful of summits. We would be the first team in two years to climb central peak and the only one in spring 2001. If successful, we would be the first western (non-Chinese or non-Japanese) team to summit, and also the first female ascent. Our two Tibetan climbing assistants hoped also to be the first Tibetans on the summit.
Obscure to most in the west, Nonjin Tanglha mountain range rolls through the heart of Tibet, just north of the Himalayas and Everest near the capital, Lhasa. The range has been visited by notable British climbers Sir Christian Bonnington and John Towne. Viewed from the North, the massif rises sharply with a crown-like cluster of summits, from the shores of holy Lake Nam-tso. The local Tibetan herders bestow this monolithic white landmark with its edifying name, "God of the Grasslands".
Kate’s diary musings written whilst in flight from Bangkok to Kathmandu also echoed true for Keith and Liz. "I'm a bit awestruck by what I am about to do, my first climb at extreme altitude, I don't think I can conceive just how tough, physically and mentally, it will be. All I know is it’s tough trekking to 5700m, and seemed tough climbing at 5200m! Excited about Tibet, apprehensive about the climb, especially since I revised Altitude Sickness! Wondering how I'll get on with the others. Boy I hope I am up to this! I am a bit concerned re the time we have available too. Well, stay tuned!"
From Lhasa we drove north 70 kilometers to establish base-camp at the mouth of Banuco valley (15,800 feet/4,800m) on a breezy afternoon of March 28th. The river was still frozen thick with ice. No sooner had we arrived in an apparently deserted wilderness, than a group of Tibetan men, women and children materialised out of nowhere. They came to marvel at our base-camp, learn about us and some even stayed for the duration, collecting water and helping in the kitchen – charming, intelligent and friendly people. They were dressed in homemade robes, and spoke no English. One morning, we awoke to the site of Tibetan worshippers throwing paper offerings into the wind at a distant temple, all silhouetted against the dawn sky.
Over a few days and gear shuttles, we set up ABC (17,300 feet/5,250m) amongst grazing yaks deep within Banuco valley at the base of a 20,000 foot (6,000m) shear-wall mini-peak that masks the south-southwest face of Central Peak. Finding the route to C1 took several days. A more direct route further up the valley we unfortunately did not discover until later. C1 lies in the saddle between the mini-peak and the main face at 19,600 feet (5,950m). The entire team was in C1 on April 11th, via traversing the mini-peak, a much more arduous task. We were treated to superb views from C1, peaks rolling into the distance as far as one could see, and the knowledge that there was unlikely to be another soul out there.
C2 was established by Jon and Penba at 6,500m. Because the slope was steep and smooth with ice and to assist with gear carries, we fixed 500 metres of line to C2 (21,400 feet/6,500m). From C2 we thought it would be a straight shot to the summit. Dan and Jon explored an eastern route on the face that unfortunately led into a maze of crevasses. They persevered and found a possible summit route to the West, returning to C2 by a tenuous route along sheer cliffs. Time was running out and bad weather arrived. (These peaks have an intensely local and volatile weather system due to their proximity to Lake Nam-tso.) We hunkered down in our Ozark tents waiting for a respite.
On April 15th, our last possible summit day, Kate, Liz, Nwang, Penba, Dan, and Jon headed out in uncertain conditions. Once beyond their previous high point, Penba and Jon roped together and took the lead to find the route and place wands. They crossed a large flat plateau of wind-blown snow "dunes" at 22,600 feet (6,850m). This ended abruptly at a short 600-700 ft snow wall and the last section of slope below the summit. The rest of the team popped up at the far end of the plateau.
While the others were making their summit bid, Keith decided to return to ABC alone. On the descent, suffering from lack of calories and dehydration, he put in a call to Dan who unhesitatingly abandoned his own summit attempt and returned with Liz to help Keith, who was in fact found intact.
Meanwhile, the remaining summit team continued on through all-compassing white clouds, fearful the weather would deteriorate. However, as time passed, it appeared the weather was stable and it was just cloud we were in the midst off. Regardless, the almost white out conditions, at 6850m, were eerie. As Dan turned back for Keith, Kate trudged across the plateau with Nwang. Without Dan there and the late afternoon hour, Kate feared the summit was out of reach. She became philosophical – Too many factors stacked against me. Jon and Penba far ahead. Then the summit appeared just once through the cloud. Kate and Nwang carried on, gingerly around the bergschrund, clawing their way up the snow slope.
About this time Jon & Penba reached the summit on their last wand. The summit was a gradually sloped ridge that suddenly dropped away into questionable snow cornices straight down into Nam-tso Lake. An omen of a future project perhaps? Jon jokenly asked Penba what he thought of his pace, which was almost as fast as this young Tibetan. “Not bad” answered Penba, “But If I did not have a cold, then I would be twice as fast as you.”
Upon their descent, Jon and Penba met Kate and Nwang just above the ice wall. At that point, 1650 hrs, Kate, exhausted, still wanted to give it a shot. Nwang, still strong, was not keen to continue up. But with 6 wands to the top, the two set off. Jon told them to turn around no later than 1800 hours. Jon and Penba waiting for them on a rock outcropping at 6900 meters. From here Jon called their sponsor, the president of Ozark gear, Mr. Schallenberger.
Meanwhile, with Nwang in the front shrouded by mist, Kate struggled on, making her goal just the next wand ahead. It was getting harder and harder to breathe, now above 7000m. The clouds cleared but briefly before closing in, the summit not visible. Somewhere past the fourth wand Kate suddenly had lumps of sputum in her throat. She recalls, “I'd had no symptoms of a cold, and realized this could be HAPE” (high altitude pulmonary oedema). At that moment the wind picked up, the snow blew around and, “I (Kate) made the decision - this was it. It was actually with some relief, I was VERY tired.” We sat in the white-out and wrapped our prayer flags around the wand, took photos and then turned down, to meet Jon and Penba huddled in their down clothing on the rock outcroppings. Kate and Nwang made it about 30 vertical metres from the summit. Jon was surprised that Kate had turned around, later impressed by her brave decision, after hearing her recount her story up there.
Nwang and Penba proceeded to sprint down the mountain, carrying a large amount of gear, while Jon helped Kate painstakingly descend, one rope length at a time, exhaustedly skirting the edges of cliffs to safely arrive C2 before midnight. The two boiled fluids and worried that Kate’s condition of racing pulse and continual cough would deteriorate. Kate treated herself with suitable medicaitons (she is a physician). A night of poor sleep resulted in both feeling better the next morning.
Dan, Liz and Keith spent the night bivouacking on the slopes above ABC in the storm.
Next morning the sun broke through the clouds as each group descended to base-camp with heavy packs full of the remaining equipment and rubbish. The "new route", so easy earlier, was tedious now with a cover of snow over the slippery rocks. At ABC, Jon asked Kate what she thought of the whole experience. "The jury is still out" she replied. At that point, exhausted, having spent a large sum of money to go through 3 weeks of hardship and endurance in the mountains - well it all seemed pretty mad!
Base-camp was a warm welcome. Ice chunks tumbled down the now freely flowing river. Spring was clearly starting to penetrate the high Tibetan plateau. Jeeps were waiting to take us back to Lhasa, the hotel, a hot shower and a slap-up meal.
As we left base camp, the evening light on the snow-capped peaks and plains, the yaks and villages, was quite beautiful. Arriving to the "bright lights" of Lhasa, I am sure each of considered how that morning I had been high-up at camp 2, or precariously camped on the slopes above ABC, and was somewhat overwhelmed by the preceding 2 days and the abrupt return to civilization.
The following morning, 17 April, we successfully negotiated the melee at Lhasa airport and took a spectacular flight back to Kathmandu, passing over Everest, Makalu, Lhotse and many others on the way.
As I looked upon this awesome view, the hardship of the last month disappeared into the memory banks. We left Kathmandu two days later to go our separate ways, still marvelling at all we had seen and done in such a short space of time and relishing new friendships made.
Jon Otto took this photo of Penba on the summit Platuea. Here is what Jon says about it: "It's just this big platuea and the most prominent feature is that bit of cornice, I believe, or snow drift sticking up behind Penba. Towards the left about ten meters the slope suddenly ends at the north face. It also seemed like a huge cornice but had no way of telling where it started. Due to the conditions and late in the day, we did not approach either of these. I had to wait 2 minutes before being able to see the thing sticking up in the back of Penba to take this shot. Who knows if it will be there in the future. So, we just stood in the middle of this big plateau dissappointed that we could not see Lake Namsto."
Our team in basecamp. Keith Affleck, Kate Brown, Liz Carr, Dan Mazur, Jon Otto, Pemba Tashi, and Nawang Tendup. Photo by Tsering, our Tibetan Liason Officer.
And thanks to the Tibet Expedition School, with whom we joined together to climb this peak: