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French Play Odds for First Ascent of Gurkarpo Ri

Looking southeast up the Langshisha Glacier, Jugal Himal. (A) part of the south face and Standard Route on Langshisha Ri (6412m). (B) Gurkarpo Ri (6889m). (C) Leonpo Gang (aka Big White Peak, 6979m). (D) Dorje Lhakpa (6966m). (E) Kanshurm (6078m). This aerial shot was taken in mid-March 1981. [Photo] Jacques Belge

After his mid-August ascent of Mamostong Kangri in the Indian East Karakoram, the French guide Paolo Grobel had two commercial expeditions organized for Nepal’s post-monsoon season. On October 2 Grobel, two Sherpa companions and five clients reached the summit of Saribung, a relatively easy 6328-meter peak in the Damodar Himal. After this the leader returned to Kathmandu to collect a new group for a rather more demanding ascent of Langtang Ri (7205m) in the Langtang Himal.

This peak has been attempted at least seven times, four of those successfully. All known attempts have followed the southwest ridge, first climbed in October 1981, the year that the peak was first brought on to the permitted list, by a joint expedition from the Nepal Mountaineering Association and the Himalayan Association of Japan led by Hideyuki Uematsu. The ridge proved straightforward, if rather sharp in many places, and has received a “Nepalese winter” ascent: in early December 1989 by the Korean 8000-meter collector, Park Young-Seok. The downside of Langtang Ri is that it lies at the head of the Langtang Glacier on the Tibetan frontier and is actually farther north than Shishapangma. The approach up this glacier is very long with difficult moraine travel, as several parties, attempting to make unauthorized ascents on Shishapangma via an approach from the Langtang and a crossing of Hagen’s Col, have found to their cost.

Grobel established his base camp at the start of the glacier at a spot known as Pemthang Karpo, though sometimes referred to as Morimoto Peak Base Camp–the 6150-meter Morimoto Peak (officially named Bhemdang Ri) lies to the northwest. This camp site is immediately below and north of Langshisha Ri (6412m). A further probe north quickly convinced the French team that with all the fresh snow on the glacier, just reaching the foot of the mountain would take far too long. It was time for a rethink.

Much closer, two mountains were visible from base camp: Pemthang Karpo Ri (aka Dome Blanc, 6830m) and Gurkarpo Ri (6889m). Both are part of the Jugal Himal and lie on the Nepal-Tibet frontier at the head of an unnamed branch glacier to the southeast. In addition there was the nearer Langshisha Ri, which is smaller but more technical. Grobel’s choice was dictated largely by a weather forecast, which predicted clear skies but high winds up to 60km/hour at 6500m. In these conditions (the daytime temperature at base camp was already 40 degrees C) the west ridge of Gurkarpo Ri looked a better option than the long and exposed southwest ridge of Pemthang Karpo Ri. However, Grobel knew nothing of Gurkarpo Ri’s history, had no idea whether it was on the Government’s list of permitted peaks, and at that time was unaware that it had never been climbed. He also now was short of time, and calculating that he only had around ten days left to make the ascent, realized that the climb would have to be made more or less in a continuous push, without any return to base for rest and recuperation. He also was unable to consult with his Liaison Officer, who had remained at Kyanchin Gompa in the main valley.

Camp 1 quickly was established at ca. 4800m on the side glacier, Camp 2 on a huge, flat glaciated col between Langshisha Ri and Gurkarpo Ri. From this viewpoint the latter appeared similar to the Obergabelhorn in the Swiss Valais. Realizing that two more camps would be needed, Grobel managed to get 800 meters of static line and twenty-five snow stakes airdropped at Camp 2, something of an (expensive) novelty in Nepal. Directly opposite and to the south lay Dorje Lhapka (6966m), which Grobel had climbed in 1999.

The sharp snow and ice spur leading up the northwest flank of the west ridge was dubbed the Arete des Rapiettes. Camp 3 was placed a little to the left of this at ca. 5800m, and as a training/acclimatization exercise, this arete was climbed to a small summit at PD+. The broad glaciated couloir to the left of this arete was climbed and fixed, generally by Grobel and his two Sherpas, Cho Temba and Zangbu. The 400-meter snow/ice slope led to a plateau and the site of Camp 4 at 6200m. On October 31, while the other members rested in this camp, Grobel, Cho Temba and Zangbu fixed rope on the 45-50 degree slopes above, leading to a vague col on the upper-west ridge at 6600m.

The next morning, November 1, Cho Temba awoke with a very bad headache and Grobel thought it wise for the head Sherpa to descend, accompanied by Zangbu, to Camp 2. The remaining five climbers continued. One member stopped before the ridge due to a bronchial infection but the other four, Pierre-Oliver Dupuy, Marc Kia, Jean Francois Males (who had climbed Dorje Lhakpa with Grobel) and Grobel himself, reached the crest and were somewhat surprised to find the Tibetan slopes to the right quite gentle. They made good progress up these, finding only one short section of 40 degrees surmounting a rimaye, before reaching the summit. The weather was excellent; although very cold the wind was quite bearable. The descent went without incident, and three days after reaching the summit all members were back at Kyanchin Gompa. The route was named Some More Rice? and warranted an alpine grade of D.

Gurkarpo Ri had been attempted five times prior to the French ascent: first by Koreans in the winter of 1993 (reached 6100m on the west ridge but gave up due to technical difficulty); Japanese in the autumn of 1998 by what they refer to as the northwest ridge (gave up at 6150m); Germans the following year, but they were prevented from really getting to grips with the west ridge due to deep snow; Koreans again in the winter of 2001, but they forfeited low on the south face due to avalanche conditions and cold; Koreans again on the southeast face in the autumn of 2003, giving up low down due to avalanche conditions. The peak had gained something of a reputation for difficulty, but it seems that all except the Japanese approached the mountain up the Langshisha Glacier to the south, rather than the northerly approach used by the French.