We had left Camp 2 at 7,000 meters on Shishipangma at 1 a.m., hoping to cover just over 1,000 vertical meters, with a plan to gallop straight through Camp 3 and on up to the summit by mid-morning.
The weather was good and luck was with us, as foretold by the high Lama in Kathmandu. Shishipangma is the lowest and considered one of the easier of the 8,000 meter peaks – how hard could it be?
As Stephen Venables had pointed out to me when on our climb up the Kangshung Face on Everest, Shishipangma isn’t even pronounceable by most people.
Stephen had been to Shishipangma – it is a beautiful, remote, exotic, and sometimes, as we have seen, not even allowed peak. Lets just hope Nims gets his permit this week. And then he just needs the weather and conditions to smile on his final summit.
Suddenly it seems, Shishipangma is important, the peak that completes an almost heraldic knights quest to the top of the 14 tallest peaks in the world for Nims Purja.
It was Stephen Venables who got me my first guiding job, on Shishipangma. Steve Bell from Jagged Globe called Stephen and as he was busy, suggested me.
I went to Nepal via the Jagged Globe office in Sheffield, was briefed in on the logistics by Simon Lowe, and sent off with a shoebox full of money.
I knew Tibet well, having organized and led five expeditions there. I wasn’t really a guide, I’d actually never guided anything in my life. The impatience levels and desires for higher, harder and ever faster of my youth would have certainly ill-suited me to the profession at that time. With an interest in all the high peaks and the people that want to visit them, I soon realized guiding could actually be a lot of fun. And Shishers would be a great introduction.
There probably aren’t many whom there first guiding job is an 8,000 meter peak, in Tibet. At the time, there were few of us making annual sojourns into the country however, and working with the Chinese Mountaineering Association, some rascally yak drivers, and with teams of clients and sherpas, there was always a lot going on, most of which you just couldn’t plan for. Visiting Tibet in any capacity is always an adventure.
You can traverse across China to get to Shishipangma, but most start in Kathmandu, then fly to Lhasa or just drive up over the border and into Tibet. Shishipangma is the only 8,000r wholly located in Tibet, but very close to the border. Like Cho Oyu and the northern routes on Everest, it is just a long way around and there are only a few passes where you can get through the Himalayas. With the closing of the border at Zhangmu, you now go to the West of Shishipangma and drive back across the Tibetan Plateau and up to Base Camp.
As much as it may seem a bit late in the year right now, with climbers finished on Everest, Cho Oyu and Dhalagiri, there are normally a number of weather windows between now and the end of October. Like many post-monsoon peaks in the Himalayas, the big danger is from avalanches.
You drive up to the end of the road at 4,900 meters, then hike a long 18 kilometers up the valley to Base Camp at 5,700 meters. This time of year it should be warm, grassy and with beautiful lakes around and above camp. It is one of the most relaxed and scenic Base Camps for an 8,000 meter peak. Views out over the Tibetan plateau fall away below you and above rises Shishipangma with its host of steep ridges and ice slopes.
From Base Camp you ascend alongside the glacier, before breaking out left onto the glacier itself. Many ski from here, and you can go as far as Camp 2 on skis, a rather pleasant tour up to the base of the climbing.
Above Camp 1 you go up a steeper slope and then into a high hanging glacier, that with the altitude increasing and surrounded by snow is best to be climbed under cover of darkness. At the head of the glacier at 7,000 meters is a wide and flat slope for Camp 2, with plenty of crevasses just to keep it interesting.
Above Camp 2 the slope steepens, but only up to a level where you will be having to do some fast turns if you opt to carry skis up for the descent. A few hours up this slope leads to Camp 3, where you can spend another night, or as we did, pause for breakfast and carry on to the top.
With the big snows that have fallen over the summer and this fall, the biggest challenge from here is a mix of deeper snow and the potential for avalanche. Hugging the rocky ridge on the right helps. The ridge twists and turns and in places has some fun scrambling. When we did it, it was before the peaks were all laced up with fixed ropes, and I placed only one fixed rope on a steeper section high up. We had three Sherpas and we alternated breaking trail – which took, as ever it seems, much longer than we had planned for. The ridge climbing above the col is very fun, spectacular even, you are far above the plateau and edging up with some very big drops on both sides.
The Central Summit lies a good distance from the Main Summit, which is a few meters higher, but essential if you want to touch the very top. In the post-monsoon this is often avalanche prone on both sides and straddling the ridge, with a potential leap off the other side if the slope does go, a rather frightening prospect.
We reached the top at 4 p.m., luckily beating sunset. With a strong and experienced group – Paul had already done the 7 summits, we were all comfortable pushing the day out, weather was very stable and what are headlamps for anyway? The Sherpa’s strode off down the hill and we followed at a more sedate pace, crawling back into our tents at Camp 2 around 11 p.m.
Here’s hoping Nims has as enjoyable a climb – and a fast, if not of course faster, ascent. And importantly, he has as much fun in finishing his quest.