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Mingma Gyalje Sherpa’s Solo Ascent of Khang Tagri (Mt. Chobutse)

We first reported on Mingma Gyalje Sherpa’s new route on Khang Tagri (Mt. Chobutse; 6685m), in Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley, in the November 2015 NewsWire Sherpa and American Teams Climb First Ascents in Rolwaling Himal.

Below is the full story by Mingma Gyalje Sherpa, first published in Alpinist 53–Ed.

[Photo] Mingma Gyalje Sherpa

ONLY A FEW CLIMBERS have seen Mt. Chobutse, the 6686-meter mountain above my village in the Rolwaling Valley of Nepal. In Tibetan scripture, the original name of the peak is Khang Tagri. Although the north and south ridges rise in gradual arcs, the west face looks as sharp as an upturned axe. Beneath it, the waters of Tsho Rolpa glow a clouded, icy green. Our grandparents used to graze animals there. As the snows have melted, the glacial lake has submerged its shorelines. It keeps growing, threatening our region with floods. In some ways, it’s a symbol of how vulnerable our homeland is.

We Sherpas have always regarded mountains as deities. Khang Tagri, in particular, is special to me because I’ve seen it since childhood. When we were little, my friends and I listened to older villagers share tales of expeditions on 8000-meter peaks. We played climbing games on nearby rocks and sang the popular song, “Hamro Tenzing Sherpale Chadyo Himal Chuchura,” about Tenzing Norgay Sherpa’s first ascent of Everest, or as we call it, Chomolungma.

As far back as I can remember, I wanted to climb a big mountain myself. My father and my grandfather had both worked as guides. In 2006 I graduated from a school in Kathmandu, and my uncle let me join his staff when he led a Japanese team to Manaslu. Although I had to learn everything during the ascent, I reached 7300 meters. A year later, I got a chance to climb Everest. After I’d proved myself on the world’s highest mountain, other expeditions wanted to hire me.

Gradually, I developed an addiction to this way of life, and I started an adventure travel company. At times the barrage of phone calls and the pressures of work exhausted me. But in the mountains, I could focus on movement that felt good for mind and body. I could enjoy the wonder of this world and experience the sensation of flying in the clouds.


[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

MEANWHILE, MY VILLAGE was becoming more and more deserted. Today, there are only fifty-four residents, many of them elderly and impoverished. We don’t have roads or proper schools, health posts or electricity. Since the elevation is 4000 meters, snow covers the ground half the year. People grow potatoes, radishes and spinach during the brief farming season, but they have to carry much of their supplies from lower elevations. Those who can afford to move generally leave for urban areas and foreign countries, where life is easier. At the same time, we have many good places for ice and rock routes. If we could attract more visiting climbers, there might be more jobs, and our young people might settle in the village again.

The west face of Khang Tagri naturally catches the eyes of alpinists, arousing the question, Is it possible? Its base was just two hours away from my childhood home. Through my window, I’d often watched its snows gleam against the golden rocks and the blue sky. Gazing at its intricate flutings, I thought that if we could just figure out a good line, many people would come to climb here. But I couldn’t find anyone else who dared to join me. Finally, I decided to find the new route alone. No one from Nepal had ever soloed a first ascent, and I imagined the news would bring attention to our village. Friends urged me not to try something so mad. My idea was obviously dangerous, and I was afraid.

Once I began the climb, I just focused on staying alive. Don’t make a mistake or you’re finished, I told myself. Although there was no one to hear me, I kept talking, asking myself: Why did you choose to go alone? I still have no real answer. All I can say is this: the adventure will remain one of the most memorable of my life.


FOR A LONG TIME, the deeds of many Nepalese climbers have been hidden from history. Although we’re real people who fix ropes on Himalayan mountains such as Everest, K2 or Ama Dablam, few foreign clients acknowledge our help, describing us merely as nameless high-altitude porters or pretending that we don’t exist. I’ve read books about the 1996 Everest disaster in which Western mountaineers only focus on what they did and how they survived. But if you meet other members of those expeditions, they’ll tell you what Lopsang Jangbu Sherpa did and how many people he saved during the night. If Nepalese climbers were able to give their statements, there could be different stories.

In recent years, some of us have begun to see mountaineering as more than just a job. We’ve honed our skills with internationally recognized organizations such as the IFMGA/UIAGM. Most Nepalese climbers could now compete in any corner of the alpine world. Perhaps, as we establish our own routes, more people will learn to see us and to listen to our voices.

From October 4 to 6, 2015, my friends Nima Tenji Sherpa, Tashi Sherpa and Dawa Gyalje Sherpa reached the summits of three unclimbed Rolwaling peaks: Raungsiyar (6224m), Langdak (6220m), and ThakarGo East (6152m). It was the first time that an all-Sherpa team had made first ascents in Nepal. While they were on the mountain, I waited below, ready to come to their rescue if anything went wrong. In the end, they moved faster than they’d expected: one success after another over the course of three consecutive days. The news gave me a burst of energy, a good feeling about my plans.

An older man from the valley, one of the most popular Sherpa climbers of his day, suggested that I start my attempt on the second night of the full moon, when the light is brightest. On October 25, I guided seven foreigners up Mt. Pharchamo, a 6279-meter peak, but I didn’t feel tired. Two days later, I left for Khang Tagri, with my Italian friend Emanuele Marafante, who planned to film my ascent, and a porter named Puskar. Dorjee Chhiring Sherpa helped carry our loads and showed us the way to base camp. My little sister knew where I was going. Since she was too young to scold me, she just said, “Be careful and don’t be so crazy.” I didn’t dare tell my mother: she wouldn’t have let me go.


[Video edited by]

Emanuele Marafante

at 3.A.M., I woke in base camp. The moon lit the snow almost as intensely as if it were daytime. I’d never been this close to the west face before. Few villagers had ever been here. There was no guiding work on that aspect of the mountain, and it was a long walk from the lake. The forecast had predicted a perfect autumn day–enough time, it seemed, for me to get up and down. I wrapped one coil of rope around me and stuffed another one in my pack, along with pickets, in case I needed to rappel. Perhaps I was overconfident. But no one from Nepal had done anything similar, and I felt I had no one to ask for advice.

In the moonlight, the rocks loomed like giants. Deep shadows accentuated the outlines of forms. Since ridges are generally the safest parts of a mountain, I chose one that curved around the start of the west face. I’ve never been comfortable rock climbing in gloves, so I stopped to warm my bare fingers again and again. The air was so luminous I could see each crevice. Small crystals glittered like stars. At first I felt a little lost as I searched for the best route. Then I began to move steadily, finding an easy rhythm between hand and footholds. At one steep edge, I paused to self-belay. The frequent patter of loose rock reminded me that I was probably the first person there.

When the ridge seemed to be taking me too far from the face, I rappelled to rejoin the snow. I was so focused on climbing that I barely noticed the dawn. The higher I got, however, the more scared I felt looking down. The sharp angle left nowhere to stop. I kept thinking, One mistake means my life. Beneath thin layers of snow, the ice shattered under my crampon points. I kept imagining I might fall. Twice, I paused to chop a small ledge and to rest my mind. I felt that I should give up, but I couldn’t. I didn’t want people to say that I’d made the wrong decision to venture into this place by myself.

By midday, I’d emerged from the shadows, and the sun’s warmth filled me with new life.

Thick blue flows covered the last few hundred meters of the face. As I heard the solid thunk of my axes, my fear gave way to smooth, habitual motion. Earlier that year, I’d led from Camp I to the summit of Annapurna, often fixing ropes without a proper belay. I remembered those solitary moments on the “deadliest peak in the world,” and confidence surged through me.

After thirteen hours of climbing, I reached the flat summit ridge of Khang Tagri, where I felt safe, for the moment. Soon I was floundering through deep drifts. The final fifty meters took nearly half an hour. Mists rose from the valley. I couldn’t see my village, but the top of Mt. Kang Nachugo shone in the late afternoon sun. Four years ago, two Americans, Joseph Puryear and David Gottlieb, had made the first ascent of that peak. At the time, the news surprised us in the village. Now I gazed more closely: the peak no longer looked so impossible after what I’d achieved. As the clouds rolled over, I took a video to prove I’d arrived on the summit. Gusts cracked through the air. Shadowed ridgelines appeared and disappeared through swirling fog, tinged with the rose and gold of approaching dusk. The far edge of the summit vanished into emptiness.


[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

I DESCENDED into a whiteout. When I could see nothing at all, I dug a cave in the hard-packed snow to wait for better visibility. The wind quickly filled the opening with drifts. I covered my face with my scarf and wrapped my legs with my sponsor’s large yellow banner. All night, I rubbed my body to keep from freezing.

In the morning, the storm continued. I used my satellite phone to call my cousin Phurba Tenjing Sherpa in Kathmandu to tell him that I might need help. If I couldn’t move soon, an avalanche might wash me away. At 11 a.m. the clouds thinned, so I quickly started down. After I rappelled almost 120 meters, the whiteout returned, and I tumbled down an ice cliff. Fortunately, after just a few meters, I landed in a shallow hole. It was too dangerous to keep going. My ribs ached. Lack of sleep clouded my mind. About ten meters away, I could just make out another place to dig a refuge. I tried to clear away some of the snow before starting the traverse. A slab broke, cascading down the mountain. I paused, breathing deeply, hoping the worst had passed. Then I hooked my tools in the ice and began across. Another whumpf. This time, the slide crashed over me, but my axes were planted deeply enough that I could hold on. At last, I reached a cave under a stable serac. I called my cousin again, this time to tell him that I needed a rescue. But the weather was too bad for a helicopter to fly past the village of Beding.

At 1 p.m., I got the message that a helicopter had landed in Rolwaling. Then Phurba called to say that I had to speak to my mother. All I could hear was the sound of her crying. I kept telling her that I was warm, that I could survive in this spot for two or three more days, that I wasn’t the kind of person who would easily die. She continued to weep until I couldn’t bear to talk anymore, and I cut the phone off, saying I needed to save the battery.

I also spoke with David Gottlieb, who’d arrived in Rolwaling for another climbing trip. He said I should try to create a comfortable shelter, because a rescue was impossible that day. My sister and brother made offerings in the monasteries for my safe return. I enlarged the walls of my cave, and I sat there for hours, imagining the sound of the monks chanting, as the blue ice dimmed into black night.

At 3 a.m., the mists drew away, and two mountains appeared. After a night and day of snowfall, they looked unrecognizable, buried under thick layers of moonlit white. But when I exited the cave, I could clearly tell they were Everest and Lhotse. Then the clouds returned. Dawn brought no glimpse of sun, just a gradual transformation of black fog into grey. I knew the helicopter was on standby, with relatives and friends eager to save me. By then, I’d spent two nights in the open, and they probably thought I was too weak to walk. I knew that I was strong enough to down climb if the skies would only clear. Yet as I stared into the void of clouds, I felt no more hope.


[Illustration] Andreas Schmidt

AT 8 A.M. the mists had lifted until I could see Everest once more, its ridges crisp and shining, as if close enough to touch. The helicopter hovered nearby, unable to pluck me from the steep slope. The same images played over and over in my mind: my family gathered in my home, crying at the thought of me alone without food or water. Desperate, I clawed at the snow with my axes and stamped with my boots until I’d made a flat helipad. After two tries, the helicopter landed. I quickly opened the door and leapt inside.

In the village, my relatives rushed toward me, tears streaking their faces. Some of them took my bag. Others removed the crampons from my boots. I stumbled into my house, sat down on my bed and asked for tea. A tide of murmuring voices rose around me. “Don’t do such things again,” people said. I kept on replying, “I’m fine.” My mother told me that she’d stayed by my window, watching the mountain each night. Whenever the clouds drew back, she could see each ripple of ice and snow flowing in the moonlight. She imagined my body lying frozen in some furrow.

“Why do you have to climb mountains where others have failed?” she asked. If I were lost, darkness would descend on our home. My work paid for the education of my two sisters and one cousin. “Without you,” my mother told me, “I’d have no reason to go on living.” Her eyes watered as she thanked everyone for helping me come home. She poured me a cup of the milk tea she knew I loved. Guilt filled me, but I couldn’t think of any words to say.


Portrait of the author.

[Photo] Dorjee Chhiring Sherpa

LATER I FOUND a blister on my leg from wearing stiff boots for more than fifty-three hours. Otherwise, my body was fine. But I canceled my plans to join a winter attempt on Nanga Parbat. I’d given my family enough to worry about for one season.

Outside my window, Khang Tagri still flashes in plain sight, reflecting the rays of the sun, the moon and the stars. Next year, I’ll probably make another first ascent in Rolwaling, but I’ll climb with a team. I’m not ready to quit alpinism until I feel that I’ve helped change mountaineering in Nepal. The rocks where I’d played as a boy now seem small. Beyond them stretch so many giant, untouched walls.

Born in the Rolwaling Valley of Nepal, Mingma Gyalje Sherpa has trained with the UIAGM and the Nepal National Mountain Guide Association, and he is a member of the High Altitude Mountain Workers Welfare Association.

To read this story in print, pick up Alpinist 53.