Cholatse 11, Ama Dablam 0 (Everest arrested for streaking)

If ever I used omens as a means of determining my next holiday destination, then it’s likely I would have spent this autumn sunning myself on a beach somewhere in the Southern Hemisphere, rather than returning to the Himalayas for yet another mountaineering expedition. Luckily I’m not superstitious, and not only was my climb of Cholatse as happy, successful and trouble free as an expedition can be, with some really interesting and hair raising climbing, but it restored my faith in humanity after an unpleasant experience in Nepal earlier in the year.

Our climb of Cholatse was as happy, successful and trouble free as an expedition can be
Our climb of Cholatse was as happy, successful and trouble free as an expedition can be

During my expedition to Lhotse last spring I witnessed an avalanche in the Khumbu Icefall on Everest which killed 16 people. In the aftermath of the tragedy an industrial and political dispute led to all expeditions being abandoned before setting foot on the mountain. Then a week before my flight out to Nepal last month blizzards swept across the Annapurna region, killing 39 tourists and mountain workers in a series of avalanches.

If none of this were enough barely 40 minutes into my expedition I received as stark and graphic a reminder of the dangers of high altitude mountaineering as it’s possible to have. Myself, expedition leader Phil Crampton, and another client Miikka from Finland were waiting at Lukla helipad for an onward flight to Namche Bazaar when another helicopter landed and dropped off a guide with the body of one of his clients, a Russian climber who had been killed in a fall on Ama Dablam. As we waited patiently for our transport a discrete distance away, the corpse was unwrapped and photographed by police right under our eyes. Although Phil and I both knew the guide it wasn’t an appropriate moment to walk over and introduce ourselves, and we never did find out for sure how the accident happened. Reports in the media suggested the climber fell when a fixed rope broke, a worrying prospect given the extent we would be relying on fixed ropes for our own security on Cholatse, but word of mouth in Namche later suggested he may not have been clipped into the rope at the time. Being so close to someone cut off in their prime is a moment for quiet reflection and awareness of how easily it could be our own friends and families suffering.

Whatever the reason for the accident, as omens go it was about as subtle as informing a teenager the Calvin Klein logo is showing on his underpants by giving him a wedgie. For climbers on Ama Dablam it may well have been worth heeding. Hundreds were trying to climb it this autumn: three lost their lives, and several others were injured in an avalanche. As we walked up the Dudh Kosi valley we saw many helicopters flying overhead, apparently for rescue after rescue.

Cholatse is striking from a number of angles, most notably the popular viewpoint of Gokyo Ri
Cholatse is striking from a number of angles, most notably the popular viewpoint of Gokyo Ri

For us it was a very different story. Why would anyone want to climb a mountain with hundreds of other people on it when there are dozens all around with none? Ama Dablam is certainly a very beautiful mountain, but not so much more than any number of others in the Khumbu region. Cholatse itself is striking from a number of angles, most notably the popular viewpoint of Gokyo Ri and from the Khumbu Valley on the Everest Base Camp trail. From some of these angles it looks almost unclimbable, and this is reflected in the fact that it has very few ascents. Despite being classified as a trekking peak by the Nepal Mountaineering Association, which means permits are much cheaper and very little paperwork is required, it tends to be the domain of hardcore alpinists and has very few commercial ascents. The New Zealand operator Adventure Consultants ran a successful expedition there in 2011, and our trip with Altitude Junkies was the first one since. Does Cholatse have the potential to become the new Ama Dablam but without the crowds?

I haven’t climbed Ama Dablam, so I can’t compare the two climbs, but with regard to the second point Cholatse wins 7-1 in the semi-final with five goals in the first half hour (with apologies to any Brazilians who may be reading). We had a lovely base camp in a secluded alpine meadow with spectacular views of the west face and surrounding Gokyo Valley. We also had the entire mountain to ourselves. That’s right – in the two weeks we were there we didn’t see another human being outside our team.

There could not have been a greater contrast with my expedition to Lhotse in the spring. Everest Base Camp on the south side was every bit the circus I had been warned about, with many people clamouring to exploit Nepal’s golden tourist goose for their own individual reasons. By contrast, here we were a small group of 5 clients, 2 western guides, 4 climbing Sherpas and 3 Sherpa kitchen crew, all sharing a common purpose and love of the mountains. Many of us have climbed together before, and the new faces soon settled in so that we felt we had known them years. We even had perfect weather.

We had a pot of tea with 60,000 other trekkers at the Everest (or in the case of this photo Thamserku) View Hotel
We had a pot of tea with 60,000 other trekkers at the Everest (or in the case of this photo Thamserku) View Hotel

We cheated a little to begin with. Instead of flying to Lukla and trekking in from there, we took a second helicopter to Namche at 3450m and spent two nights acclimatising. Of the clients, two were pre-acclimatised already from other Himalayan climbs. Margaret had even been to the summit of 8201m Cho Oyu three weeks earlier. Chad lives at nearly 2000m in Colorado, and only Miikka and I were arriving from sea level. Many of you reading this will know the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar as one of the most spectacularly sited villages anywhere in the world, in a natural bowl on a hillside hundreds of metres above the Bhote Kosi gorge, with the giant snowcap of Kongde Ri rising up on the opposite side of the valley. Many-coloured hotels and lodges rise in tiers around the bowl, and it’s possible to buy pretty much everything with the likely exception of a lawn mower in the tiny shops and stalls which line its narrow alleyways. On the second day Chad, Miikka and I went for an acclimatisation hike up the hill to the Everest View Hotel, a smart lodge high above the Dudh Kosi Valley with the distinction of … well, the clue is in the name. It also has a balcony so large that if the Everest region were any flatter Real Madrid might consider playing their home games on the grass outside. We stopped for a pot of tea with 60,000 other trekkers, and were actually served quite quickly at a reasonable price.

We had a three day trek from Namche to Cholatse base camp. The first of these took us away from the Everest and Ama Dablam trail into the Gokyo Valley, where we started close to the river among rhododendron and pine forests, but quickly rose above the tree line past some spectacular waterfalls into high altitude alpine grasslands. On the second day we only had a short two hour walk between the villages of Dole and Machermo, but the views along this section were particularly picturesque as the trail contoured high above the Gokyo Valley, with the giant white shroud of Cho Oyu looming at the far end. It was here that we also had our first views of Cholatse, and they were daunting. The Southwest Ridge we would be climbing looked very gentle for quite some distance below the summit, but then it angled between the west and south faces steeply over what looked like an alarming amount of rock. While snow plods are generally to my liking as long as they’re not too steep, high altitude rock climbing isn’t really my thing at all, and it looked likely this mountain was going to stretch me in many respects. From Machermo we had another short day hiking across the Gokyo Valley and up the other side to our base camp at 4700m beneath Cholatse’s west face. It was as nice a setting for a base camp as I’ve ever stayed, in its own green and pleasant sanctuary high above the Gokyo Valley, surrounded on two sides by rolling green hills which offered an easy leg stretch during rest days, and by Cholatse itself at the far end. On the horizon across the valley we were greeted each morning by a dazzling line of snow and rock peaks, whose existence I had been unaware of before we arrived at base camp, including Teningbo, Kyajo Ri and Phari Lapche.

Our lama-in-residence and assistant cook Pemba had a beautiful voice and was one of the most effective lamas I've ever met. Behind him is our team of hard-working and determined climbing Sherpas Kami, Gombu, Pasang Ongchu and Dorje.
Our lama-in-residence and assistant cook Pemba had a beautiful voice and was one of the most effective lamas I’ve ever met. Behind him is our team of hard-working and determined climbing Sherpas Kami, Gombu, Pasang Ongchu and Dorje.

Our itinerary allowed us nearly three weeks at base camp establishing the route, acclimatising and waiting for a suitable weather window, but in the end the weather was so perfect, calm and cloudless, that we barely required half this and were back in Kathmandu more than a week ahead of schedule having knocked the bastard off (to borrow a phrase from Sir Edmund Hillary). My previous climbs of 6000m peaks in Nepal in late October and early November have always been perishingly cold, with frostbite a significant risk. This time it was really quite mild and never once did I need to wear my down mitts, although this was helped by the fact that climbing days were relatively short and we didn’t need to make any pre-dawn starts.

We rested the first couple of days, and had our puja on the first one, conducted by our very own lama-in-residence Pemba, who was doubling up as assistant cook. Everybody agreed he had a beautiful voice and should chant more often. If success in pujas is measured by ability to appease the weather gods then he was undoubtedly the most effective lama I’ve ever met. On the third day we had an acclimatisation hike 400m up banks of moraine to a snowy combe containing a small turquoise lake and several boulder fields, which we had to cross to reach crampon point beneath an icefall. From base camp this walk looked to be over steep scree of the sort which slides underneath you as you climb, but it turned out to be quite firm underfoot and grassy. The upper part was laden with fresh snowfall, presumably from the blizzards which swept across Nepal the week before we arrived. Unusually given we were moving from autumn into winter, this melted as the expedition progressed, exposing boulder fields later on.

Two days later, following another rest day at base camp, we went back up for our second acclimatisation rotation. While our first had been a simple hike, this was to be our first day of climbing. Above crampon point the route ascended an icefall rising in steep folds beneath the west face. This looked intricate and potentially hazardous from base camp, but our climbing Sherpas had found and wanded a route through in zigzags which reduced it to little more than a snow plod with a handful of small crevasses to step over. At the top of the icefall was a short 150m headwall up to Camp 1 on a small snow col at 5600m beneath the Southwest Ridge. The headwall was angled at 45° to 55° and would have been a straightforward climb but for its surface of fine powder snow which caused many steps to collapse underfoot. Our Sherpa team had fixed ropes all the way up, but I managed to climb halfway up with a pair of ice axes, using a Tibloc device attached to the rope to hold me in the event of a fall.

On the headwall below Camp 1. Some of us actually climbed it properly.
On the headwall below Camp 1. Some of us actually climbed it properly.

“Good grief, I’m actually climbing properly,” I muttered under my breath, feeling quite pleased with myself.

But then I came to a steeper section which I couldn’t get over without attaching my jumar to the rope and hauling myself up. I cheated a few more times after this, but nobody could ever accuse me of being a stylish climber.

Camp 1 on the west col was pleasant and warm, with a magnificent view north up the Gokyo Valley across the enormous Ngozumpa Glacier, the largest in Nepal, to the sheer ice wall of Cho Oyu and Gyachung Kang which forms the border with Tibet. But it was also a scary place. A short distance away from us was the west summit of Taboche Peak, a frightening wall of fluted ice and hanging glaciers. Straight out of camp the Southwest Ridge rose steeply to a hair-raising diagonal rock slab which had apparently taken one of our climbing Sherpas Kami two hours to climb while they were fixing the route.

“That’s the crux of the climb,” said Phil, pointing it out as I arrived on the col. “If you can get up that thing you’ve done the hardest part of the climb.”

It didn’t look at all easy and I tried to thrust it from my mind until our summit push. It also happened to be bullshit. Once up that thing we had another 500m of relentlessly steep and exposed climbing up a ridge that could be used to slice yak cheese, but we weren’t to know that until we were fighting our way up it. The important thing at that point was that our acclimatisation was going as smoothly as possible. We returned to base camp with a good deal more confidence, and with another rest day we would be ready to attempt a summit push as soon as a suitable weather window presented itself.

The Southwest Ridge just below Camp 2 turned out to be protected by an overhanging wall of ice
The Southwest Ridge just below Camp 2 turned out to be protected by an overhanging wall of ice

But our acclimatisation programme was only half the story. This was a commercial climb, and while we the clients were acclimatising, three of our climbing Sherpas, Pasang Ongchu, Kami and Gombu, were busy fixing the route all the way up to Camp 2. This they did so competently that Phil, our other guide Samuli, and sirdar Dorje were able to leave them to it, helping out only occasionally with a spot of load carrying. This process included some long and tiring days when they left before dawn, climbed over 1000m and returned to base camp after dark, and it was not without its hitches. By the time we returned from our second acclimatisation foray to Camp 1 the route was fixed most of the way to Camp 2, but the final 100m were proving problematic. Camp 1 to Camp 2 was the steepest part of the route, a diagonal knife edge of snow which ended where the Southwest Ridge suddenly eased its angle to become almost a plateau. Camp 2 would be perched right on the edge of the plateau at the top of the steep section. From base camp the plateau appeared to be protected by a wall of ice, and it was here Pasang, Kami and Gombu were having difficulty finding a route. As we watched three dots working their way up this section from base camp, instead of going straight up the ridge as we expected, they appeared to be working their way out onto the west face.

“What are they doing?” said Phil as we watched.

He got in contact by radio, and learned from Pasang that underneath Camp 2 was an overhanging wall of ice, but they had found some tracks in the snow and some old rope, and were confident they were on the right route. These tracks belonged to a pair of German climbers who reached the summit alpine-style a few days before we arrived, to whom we may have owed a debt of gratitude. As we followed in their footsteps not only were we constantly impressed by their capacity to climb Cholatse as a twosome without the aid of fixed ropes, but it’s possible their tracks helped to push our Sherpa team beyond their own limits in their determination to get us to the summit. While Sherpas are the Trojans of Himalayan mountaineering, they mainly climb with commercial clients like ourselves who aren’t particularly gifted climbers. This is a bit like watching pub footballers with a hangover booting a ball around the park on a Sunday morning. To see the tracks of two western climbers who had apparently been climbing unsupported leading all the way to the summit over hazardous technical terrain may have been a surprise to them, but they were proud and determined, and if those Germans could do it they certainly weren’t going to be defeated.

From a hillside above base camp nearly everything about Cholatse looked horrible
From a hillside above base camp nearly everything about Cholatse looked horrible

While Pasang, Kami and Gombu were working their socks off high above fixing the final intricate section to Camp 2, I wandered up the hillside north of base camp to gaze across the Ngozumpa Glacier into Tibet and look down upon the trail up to the Cho La, the high pass from which Cholatse gets its name (Cho-la-tse literally translates as Lake-pass-peak). From that elevated viewpoint I also had a better look at the higher sections of Cholatse and I have to confess they scared me. There was an extensive rock pyramid we somehow had to bypass immediately above Camp 1, and as for the rest of the ridge up to Camp 2, every time I looked it appeared to become steeper. But there were also reassuring signs. The icefall and headwall up to the west col also looked horrendously steep, but I knew from experience these sections were absolutely fine, and above Camp 2 the ridge looked relatively flat. Nevertheless I was more nervous about our summit push than I’ve been for a while. This wasn’t going to be a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other snow plod like I’m used to, a climb that can be unpleasant and exhausting in places, but easily overcome with a bit of resolve and determination. This was going to require some skill and care. If I made a mistake in the wrong place I might even die.

Departure came sooner than we expected. The forecast we received on 1 November, the day Pasang and crew were fixing the final section to Camp 2, suggested the perfect weather we had experienced until then would change on 5 November with the arrival of higher winds and much colder temperatures. We expected our summit push to last 3 days: to Camp 1, to Camp 2, then to the summit and back down to base camp in a single day. This meant that if we wanted to enjoy the perfect conditions we would need to leave on 2 November or else wait several days for another window. We were ready, but it meant Pasang, Kami and Gombu would start their summit push tired after a long day of rope fixing. It also meant we would need to complete the final section from Camp 2 to the summit alpine-style, without fixed ropes, and roped together with a guide on each rope belaying on the more hazardous sections. Despite this, Sherpas, clients and guides were unanimous that we were unlikely to have a better opportunity, and we must seize it.

The crux of day 1 of our summit push was the headwall leading up to Camp 1 on the west col
The crux of day 1 of our summit push was the headwall leading up to Camp 1 on the west col

We had a leisurely start on 2 November, with a short 5 hour climb up to Camp 1 ahead of us. Before breakfast we discussed our rope teams for summit day. I would be on the last rope with the two Finns Samuli and Miikka. While Samuli had nine 8000m peaks under his belt, Miikka’s high altitude experience was mostly confined to a single unsuccessful attempt on Island Peak a few years ago, led by Samuli. I don’t know whether putting him on a rope with me was a compliment to my competence, or whether they felt we were both expendable. Miikka has his own dairy marketing business in Finland and happens to be one of Samuli’s sponsors. It was vitally important we got him to the summit to maintain Samuli’s supply of free cheese.

Phil and Samuli left base camp straight after breakfast, intending to reach the col well before us and establish Camp 1. We had a leisurely rest in the sun and left with Dorje an hour later. Our other 3 climbing Sherpas intended to rest for a little longer after the long day yesterday and join us at Camp 1 later in the afternoon. Although we left camp together, we soon split up into our normal marching order as we climbed at our own pace. I found myself climbing somewhere in the middle. Although I reached crampon point with Margaret and Dorje, I dropped behind them as we ascended the icefall and climbed alone the rest of the way to Camp 1. Despite being 22 years my senior, Margaret’s ascent of Cho Oyu just a few weeks earlier had given her superhuman powers, and I was unable to keep up with her. By the time I reached the foot of the headwall she was already halfway up it. I was feeling a little more tired with the bigger pack on my back than I had been on our acclimatisation foray, so this time I used my jumar all the way up, arriving at the top nicely fatigued at 4pm. It was warm in the sun, but our tent was pitched in the shade of a fin of rock, and the temperature contrast was sharp. I settled in and had made good progress melting snow for water and hot drinks when Miikka arrived in an excited state an hour later.

On the rock slab above Camp 1
On the rock slab above Camp 1

“Bloody hell, I’ve just been in an avalanche!” he cried as he poked his head through the door of the tent.

He was ascending part of the icefall in the shadow of a rock face when the slope above him began to slide. Luckily it swept to one side of him and he was only lightly dusted in snow, but he said it was a frightening experience because it happened so quickly and he felt helpless. When we descended the slope a few days later on our return to base camp, I could see that a 50m section of the trail we ascended had been buried. I helped Miikka settle into the tent. He had brought with him a ludicrously impractical airbed that required a tiring workout to inflate and took up half the floor of the tent when fully expanded – fine if there were only two of us, but we still had to make room for Pasang. Luckily when he arrived a short while later he was so tired that he fell asleep more or less immediately, sharing an edge of Miikka’s mattress.

3 November was the day I had been dreading. We let our Sherpas go first up the slope out of Camp 1 and across the slanting rock slab, as they were carrying the tents and intended to erect them in time for our arrival at Camp 2. I followed behind Margaret and Phil, and was relieved to reach the top of the slab without too much of a struggle, though it required a good deal of hauling on the fixed line with my jumar. Above the slab was an extended rock scramble as we climbed behind a large rock pyramid at the base of the Southwest Ridge. There was very little snow on this section, and although it was not difficult climbing it was awkward in crampons. It mainly involved traversing exposed rock ledges, and there were many loose boulders. At one point Phil tugged on a fixed rope and dislodged a 30cm square chunk from the anchor 50m above him. I was standing off to one side and watched in slow motion as it tumbled towards him, striking his ankle a glancing blow. It was difficult to tell how much it hurt him, but he completed the rest of the climb on adrenaline, as though he had just been tickled. Although the ankle wasn’t broken it must have been badly sprained because back in Kathmandu several days later he developed a significant limp as a result the incident.

Phil and Margaret at the last resting point before Camp 2
Phil and Margaret at the last resting point before Camp 2

The rock section lasted for about 150 vertical metres, and I was relieved to reach the top of it, believing it would get much easier on snow. How wrong I was. There was a small flat alcove on the ridge just large enough for two people to sit down and rest. Because of the soft powdery snow we didn’t trust the anchors on the fixed lines to hold many people. For this reason we climbed a rope length apart to ensure only one person’s weight was on any given anchor. I rested in the alcove for a few minutes while I waited for Phil and then Margaret to vacate the rope above me, not realising this would be the last resting point before Camp 2, which was still 450m above. The ridge rose in waves above me, and at each crest I could see a figure creeping up. The angle of ascent was between 45º and 60º, and there were no flat places to stop for a breather. The fixed ropes kept almost precisely to the ridgeline. On the left hand side it fell away abruptly down the west face. On the right it was still very exposed, but the angle was sufficiently horizontal to walk along. I didn’t enjoy any of it, and I knew I was going to enjoy it even less on the way down. The flatter sections were almost worse, because instead of staring into a snow slope I found myself tiptoeing along the crest of a knife-edged ridge.

100m below Camp 2 I caught up with Margaret struggling to get over a short overhanging section.

“How the bloody hell am I supposed to get up this?” she said, looking down in my direction.

It didn’t take her long to find two snow footsteps under the overhang, dig in her axe at arm’s length and lever herself up. I had a lot more trouble when it was my turn. No sooner did I stand in her two footsteps than the snow gave way beneath me. Other steps I tried broke off in the same way. I was the only person on the team who was using ordinary walking axes instead of technical ice axes, and I was unable to embed them in the soft snow without them sliding back out again. I didn’t have wrist loops, and they were attached to my harness by slings, which meant I couldn’t raise them above shoulder height. I tried to haul myself up using my jumar alone, but the fixed rope was angled across the overhang in such away that it seemed likely if I trusted to it alone I would find myself swinging across the west face like a pendulum, a prospect I did not relish. I had one final trick up my sleeve, but that also proved ineffective:

“Help, Phil, I’m stuck!” I shouted up the slope above me, but there was no reply.

The labyrinthine Fairy Grotto below Camp 2
The labyrinthine Fairy Grotto below Camp 2

For 20 minutes I tried and failed to get up, but I absolutely had to find a way over. I was so close to Camp 2 that the prospect of descending down that horrendous knife edge to Camp 1 didn’t bear thinking about.

I was eventually rescued by Chad, who caught up with me and we switched places. He was very much bigger than me, towering 6 feet 4 inches, and built like a rhino. It was likely if he could find some solid footsteps they would work for me too. He swung his axe above the overhang, stepped into the slope and pulled himself up with his jumar, making his way over the obstacle without difficulty.

“Well done, Chad,” cried Samuli, who was approaching behind us and had been watching me flounder like a walrus.

I noted Chad’s moves precisely, but still had to improvise a solution with my axe, since I was unable to swing it into the slope high overhead like he had. I rammed the shaft in horizontally as far as it would go (said the bishop to the actress), inserting it at shoulder height and making sure it was embedded right up to the pick before raising myself up. It held firm just long enough for me to reset my jumar and slide it higher up the rope. I pulled again, and at last I was above the overhang and following Chad to the last intricate section of the climb.

And what a section. So labyrinthine and tortuous it was that Chad insisted it could only have been fashioned by fairies. A tunnel passed between two huge seracs hung with giant protective icicles, which looked ready to drop off and skewer us at any moment. We plodded up to the left and climbed onto a shelf, which turned out to be the start of a twisting razor edge of snow bisected by the 1000m precipice of the west face on one side, and a giant yawning crevasse disappearing into the bowels of the mountain on the other. This was later given the name the Fairy Ridge, which seems unfairly benign. Next it was necessary to tiptoe to the right along a narrow snow ledge above the crevasse, like a man who’s been ejected onto the window sill of a skyscraper by his mistress after her husband returned from work early (the only material difference was at least we still had our clothes on). There was one short 5m ice wall to scale, then a horribly exposed traverse, and finally we emerged onto the plateau within spitting distance of the tents of Camp 2. The altitude was 6200m, which meant the summit was only 240m above us. Most of the distance was horizontal, and we believed we had a reasonably easy summit day before having to negotiate a difficult descent back to Camp 1.

Miikka and Samuli preparing for an easy summit day
Miikka and Samuli preparing for an easy summit day

4 November can best be summed up in the following 5 words: easy summit day, my arse.

It took us 4 hours to reach the top, and unlike the previous day I really enjoyed it, but it became clear early on that we weren’t going to get all the way back to base camp that day. A short distance out of Camp 2 we climbed through thigh deep snow onto the crest of a snow ridge that narrowed significantly in places so that Samuli felt it prudent to stop and belay us across. Then our 4 rope teams queued up and waited our turn to climb a 10m ice wall. Beyond the ice wall was a 50m snow ridge so horrendously exposed it was like walking along the blade of an upturned meat cleaver. How such a snow ridge can be formed and remain firm enough for 11 people to edge along it one by one was a question I had no intention of thinking about (I traversed it virtually on all fours, poised to drive both axes into the snow at the merest hint of a stumble). Beyond it was a short snow plateau, then a much bigger ice wall onto the final summit crown. The summit crown was a deceptive clutch of snow peaks, which from a distance looked like a half mile long ridge. In reality, much to our relief, it proved to be very small.

By the time Samuli, Miikka and I reached the top of the first ice wall our rope teams had become so strung out that at the front Gombu was already making his way up the final ice wall. From where we stood it looked an impossibly long distance away. We had already been climbing for two hours, and the tents of Camp 2 were still just a short stone’s throw behind us. We briefly talked about turning round, but this was never a serious suggestion with so many hours left in the day. By the time we reached the end of the meat cleaver we could see we had been deceived about distances and Gombu was already on the summit. We crossed the plateau, which was really just a much broader snow ridge bending to the right before reaching the final ice wall. This ice wall appeared sheer when we saw Gombu climbing it, but now it had been transformed into another narrow snow ridge rising up to the summit at an angle of no more than 45°. We rested at the bottom while two rope teams ahead of us dithered halfway up as they fixed a rope in place.

On the meat cleaver, with the summit crown to the right
On the meat cleaver, with the summit crown to the right

While we waited we were able to appreciate the magnificent surroundings, particularly to the right of the summit crown, where Everest, Lhotse, Makalu, Baruntse and Ama Dablam rose like fortresses over Pheriche and Dingboche nestling in the southern end of the Khumbu Valley.

Finally the ridge ahead of us was clear and we followed the others up. We went straight up as a rope team, completing the final section spider-like on all fours with both our axes digging into the slope. I wondered how much further along the ridge was the summit, but at the top Gombu greeted us with hearty congratulations.

“You have made it!” he said.

We emerged into a small basin of deep snow. At the back was a short wall of ice with a 5m snow pinnacle at one end. The pinnacle looked precarious, the sort of thing that might snap off if you stood on it. Phil was intent on finding a way up it while Pasang belayed him, but every time he swung his ice axes into its surface a mini powder avalanche disgorged itself on top of him. I talked about this summit ice mushroom in last week’s post, and why we didn’t feel we needed to climb it.

Against all the odds all 11 of our commercial group had somehow made it to the summit of one of the Khumbu region’s most eye-catching mountains. So tricky had it been that Phil vowed he would never lead another commercial trip there, but we were proud of our achievement.

Samuli waits beneath Cholatse's final summit slope
Samuli waits beneath Cholatse’s final summit slope

We still had to get down again, and that was scary and unpleasant. I was more confident returning along the meat cleaver, and was able to stand up like a man as I trod its edge, spurred on by the reassurance that somewhere behind me Samuli had Miikka and me secured by means of a belay. Only when I reached the end did I look round and see he was just a few metres behind and had simply followed us across. The following day I stared straight down the unnerving knife edge between Camp 2 and Camp 1 for three hours, but I made it down safely by a combination of rappels, arm-wraps, and an extra large dose of care and attention. When I limped into base camp later in the afternoon I was so exhausted the first thing I did was lie down on a bank and vomit into the grass (a common habit of mine). Two of our team were nursing injuries, but we were alive and pleased with ourselves.

Back in Kathmandu a few days later we had a little discussion about alpine climbing grades. A few of my previous climbs have been graded AD, and as Cholatse was by some margin the hardest technical climb I’ve ever done I was convinced it must be my first D, the next grade up. Apparently not, though, which leads me to propose a new system of classification more appropriate for people like me who are predominantly trekkers who climb a bit, rather than out-and-out climbers.

A – Short technical sections = no problem
B – Prolonged and sustained steepness and exposure = scary and difficult

Cholatse was definitely a grade B climb, and as for Ama Dablam and Everest – who cares!

You can see all my photos from our Cholatse climb here.

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