Much to my surprise last week I managed to reach the summit of 6440m Cholatse in Nepal’s Khumbu region, which despite being classified as a trekking peak by the Nepal Mountaineering Association has a reputation for being one of the country’s most challenging technical peaks.
But there’s a bit of a twist. If you look closely you might notice something funny about my summit photo:
Can you see what it is?
Yes, that’s right, I don’t appear to be standing on the summit, and what on earth’s going on behind me?
As you can see there aren’t many rocks on the summit, and the nearest one is probably a few dozen metres below me. The current summit of Cholatse is a 5m ice mushroom consisting of a certain amount of solid ice and an awful lot of unstable powder snow. At some point in the not too distant future most of it will probably fall off, and the summit will look very different to what it does in this photo. There’s quite a good chance it will fall off while someone is standing on it, and I wasn’t too keen for that someone to be me.
We’d come so far that expedition leader Phil Crampton was determined at least one of us should stand astride that final ice pinnacle, but climbing up it safely wasn’t so easy. Behind me in the photo Phil is being belayed by UIAGM guide Pasang Ongchu Sherpa. We watched him for around 15 minutes, not entirely convinced we wanted to follow if he managed to get up.
“Ice … I’ve found solid ice,” he cried every so often, swinging his pick and disappearing beneath a mini powder avalanche.
“I can climb up it very easily, Phil,” said assistant guide Samuli Mansikka from a nearby snow promontory, “but everybody wants to go down now.”
At least half this statement was true. Cholatse was an incredible climb. Never before have I felt such exposure for such an extended period of time as I experienced climbing from Camp 1 to Camp 2 the previous day. For 600m of ascent I scaled a knife edge snow slope at angles never less than 45° and sometimes up to 60°. At one point I was stuck for 20 minutes trying to get up an overhang. On summit day we frequently found ourselves tiptoeing along razor edged snow ridges so ludicrously fine that one of our team mates Chad insisted they must have been crafted in snow by fairies.
As far as I was concerned, I reached the summit, and I didn’t need to shin up that tapering ice needle and risk falling through a cornice just to prove a point.
Not everyone would agree. Samuli is currently nine fourteenths of the way through a project to climb all of the world’s 8000m peaks. Several of these are renowned for having false summits not everyone who reaches them is aware of. Many people who climb Cho Oyu in Tibet stop at a set of prayer flags with views of Everest and believe they’ve reached the top, unaware they still have to walk for 15 minutes across the summit plateau until they can see the Gokyo Lakes in Nepal. Broad Peak in Pakistan has a notorious foresummit just 17m lower than the main summit at the start of a kilometre long summit ridge. Samuli intends to climb Shishapangma in Tibet for a second time because he reached one of its summits in a whiteout, and he can’t be sure whether it was the main summit or the central one (he also intends to climb Everest and Lhotse again because he climbed them using bottled oxygen, and apparently that doesn’t count).
On the other hand most reasonable people allow some leeway when it comes to corniced and otherwise inaccessible summits. Lhotse’s summit isn’t big enough to stand on, and touching the top with your hand is considered enough. When Joe Brown and George Band made the first ascent of Kangchenjunga in 1955 they deliberately stopped a few feet short of the top because the local people believed the summit was sacred and asked them not to sully it. When I climbed Manaslu in 2011 there was a dangerous cornice on the summit and we all stopped just short. Several people have remarked on my summit photo, which looks like there could be a 100m ridge behind me, when in reality it’s just a 2m cornice. In a previous post I wrote at some length about how Manaslu’s summit has changed in the 60 years since it was first climbed.
Cholatse’s summit ice mushroom is perhaps a little bit more than these, and we believe just out of reach of Phil’s ice axes we could make out the footsteps of a pair of German alpinists who climbed the mountain a couple of weeks before us. They must have taken a bit of a risk and fair play to them.
But as far as I’m concerned I reached the summit of Cholatse, and anyone who disagrees can piss off and climb it themselves.
The usual photos and full trip report for our Cholatse climb will be coming up next week.