Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley delivers a paradise of unclimbed waterfall ice and a 6,771-meter virgin summit.
By Joe Puryear
I screamed down to David as I desperately groped for a hold below me, trying to reverse the move I had just made.
“I’m coming off!!!”
The screech of my crampons against rock echoed across the ravine. I was keenly aware of the double-zero Camalot three meters below and a half-driven Lost Arrow piton just below that. These were the only pieces that could possibly keep me off the deck. My mind raced as I thought of an old saying.
Rule #1: don’t fall while ice climbing.
Rule #2: don’t fall while ice climbing in a super-remote location in the middle of nowhere in a Third World country.
Shorty thereafter, I pitched….
* * *
I’d never done the first ascent of a waterfall before. Ice climbing had always been a means to an end. I used it to train and to hone my skills for what I always considered the more dignified objective: alpine climbing. But now things felt different. This place was filled with beautiful unclimbed waterfalls, perhaps a higher concentration than anywhere else in the Himalaya. And there was also a major unclimbed peak near the head of the valley. This journey was like no other.
It began in the autumn of 2008, when David Gottlieb and I were fresh off our first ascent of Kang Nachugo in the Rolwaling Himal. While planning this expedition we had the choice of two major unclimbed peaks in the valley, Kang Nachugo (6,735m) and Takargo (6,771m). Kang Nachugo seemed like the obvious choice for our first trip. It was more accessible, more prominent, and logistically easier. During our acclimatization we made numerous climbing and scouting ventures to the south side of the Rolwaling Valley. Here, a small sub-range of peaks rises to a modest 6,259 meters at its highest peak of Chugimago. The range’s many glacial cirques drain to the north into the U-shaped Rolwaling Valley. This valley falls over a cliff band, and it is here that the waterfalls prevail. Just as we were leaving the valley in late October to hike over the rugged Teshi Laptsa pass, we noticed the waterfalls were starting to freeze. It was at that moment that we conceived a future expedition. Wouldn’t it be great to combine a winter ice climbing trip with a winter expedition to attempt Takargo? The dream was in place; plans were soon made; 2010 would be the year [in 2009 Gottlieb and Puryear climbed nearby Jobo Rinjang (6,778m), a feature article in the 2010 AAJ].
* * *
The low winter sun shone brightly across Gauri Shankar, revealing inner ridges and hidden couloirs across its intricately weathered slopes. A dearth of winter snow had left it looking dry and barren, unfitting for such a brilliant and sacred mountain. The fresh smell of pine and rhododendron filled the air as we made our way up from the 900-meter village of Singati to the 3,800-meter village of Beding, hiking in T-shirts in unusually warm conditions. Another dry winter in the Himalaya, I thought to myself, wondering if we were to find any of the ice that we’d flown halfway around the world to climb.
An early blooming rhododendron caught my eye amidst a sea of green forest. Behind it in the distance shone a curious swath of white. Could that be what I think it is? The multi- pitch waterfall in the middle of a dry forest seemed peculiar, but it confirmed what we were in for. There were to be frozen waterfalls, and lots of them.
“Wow, look at all that ice!”
I excitedly asked my friend Yangzum, “Do you have a name for those? Have they been climbed?” On our prior trip to the Rolwaling we met a Sherpa girl who had just started her training to become a mountain guide. Her small size belied her strength and tenacity, and her infectious smile exuded enthusiasm. When we asked her to help in setting up logistics for the trip, she offered that we could stay in her father’s home. In return we asked her if she would like to come explore her own backyard for ice climbing objectives, and she eagerly accepted. Yangzum saw the value in getting experience away from the regimented official training she was receiving. We were more than pleased to have her on the rope for part of our ice explorations, not only because she was fun to climb with, but also because we gained instant credibility with the locals by including one of their own in our pursuits.
Immediately we set our sights on the most obvious and easily accessible objectives. Although there had been a couple of Nepali guide-training courses in the valley in years past, none of the locals could recall there ever being any foreigners here simply to ice climb. The locals keep a keen eye on outsiders, including visiting Nepali guides, and they affirmed that nearly every waterfall in the valley had not even been attempted.
The first day we warmed up on a nice waterfall directly above the village, a four-pitch WI4. Yangzum was immediately astounded by the length, steepness, and quality of ice, saying that the climb was the “grandfather,” meaning much greater than any of the ice she had encountered on a previous climbing trip to the Langtang region. We named the climb Pagaga Falls, meaning grandfather in Sherpa, which also spoke to its prominent position above the village.
Near Pagaga, we noticed a pitch of ice flowing out of an immense gash in the hillside. No ice was visible above, but we wanted to explore the enticing possibility that the ice continued upward. The next day we embarked on incredible ice-canyoneering adventure that would surpass our wildest dreams. After climbing the initial pitch, the waterway sank deep into the mountain’s side. Vertical and sometimes overhanging walls loomed over our heads and a ribbon of ice snaked its way upward in steps. Pitch after pitch of quality ice revealed itself, mostly in short steps of 20–30 meters, but occasionally full pitches of water-ice choked the chasm. In places the canyon was so narrow that light barely penetrated its depths. We climbed nearly 350 meters before emerging onto an upper plateau below the Chekigo Glacier. From here the canyon split and several more ribbons of ice continued to the glacier’s edge. We picked the deepest one with the most ice and continued up another 350 meters, topping out below the edge of the glacier’s moraine. We named our climb Beyul (700m, WI 4), which throughout the Himalaya means a secret and sacred valley. The climbing in the Rolwaling had already exceeded our expectations—and we were only on our second day.
Both these climbs were located on the south side of the Rolwaling Valley, which is subject to intense sun. In a better ice year, or perhaps earlier in the season, there must be massive potential for long ice routes here. The two routes we climbed were in deep gullies and were thus shaded. The rest of the ice climbing we did was focused on the shadier and snowier northern side.
Directly across the valley from the lower village of Nemari was one of the best and most extensive displays of ice in the valley. Fourteen distinct lines rose in upward of five pitches of steep water ice. At least one of these lines had been attempted by Nepali guides. The locals told a broken tale of failure and an accident, but we couldn’t get any concrete information other than: “Everything over there is unclimbed.” Two long waterfalls stood out more than any other, so over two days, we established Nemari Left (4 pitches, WI5+) and Nemari Right (5 pitches, WI5). On Nemari Left, the climbing seemed a bit too dangerous to have Yangzum with us; in any case, she was keen to have a day off with her friends. Unbeknownst to us, the Sherpas had a betting wager on whether we would succeed. They eagerly watched all day as we picked our way up the waterfall. In the end Yangzum, the only one to have placed her bet on our success, walked away with a handsome share of rupees.
* * *
By falling I broke the rules of ice climbing, but this time I escaped punishment. David lowered me to the snow and I sat down to recover and assess myself for trauma. The pain in my hands from the cold and from over-gripping my ice tools was intense, and my whole body felt tweaked. Fortunately, it had been a clean fall and my crampons skated down the rock wall without catching on anything. I was okay, but I wasn’t keen on trying it again. The line was inspiring, but it would have to wait for another day.
In the upper valley, an hour and a half hike from Beding, David and I had walked into the mother lode of ice climbs. We opened a two-pitch WI6, a handful of two- to three-pitch WI5’s, and some fun WI4’s. And we found a spectacular side gully containing a host of high-end ice and mixed routes. We named the gully Samsāra, a Buddhist term that can indicate the suffering that occurs while traveling through the cycles of life and rebirth. With my near-death experience and the agony that ensued, we thought it appropriate.
In all we climbed 13 waterfalls, with 12 of them likely being first ascents. The potential of the area is much larger. In a year of good ice conditions, or maybe just earlier in the season, there could be as many as 50 high-quality ice routes, all within a two-hour walk of Beding. We saw even more huge waterfalls in remote and obscure locations. The Rolwaling truly is one of Asia’s greatest ice-climbing venues.
Toward the end of February temperatures started rising and we witnessed several ice collapses. Ice climbing season was over. It was time to focus on Takargo.
* * *
Rays of sun filtered through the small crosshatched windows, weaving patterns in the incense smoke that filled the large room. Boom, boom, boom, clang, clang. The sound of ancient ceremonial drums and symbols combined with a monotone chanting put us in a deep trance. We sat cross-legged on the floor for several hours receiving the puja, a Buddhist blessing ceremony, for our upcoming expedition. The lamas of Beding determined that the auspicious date for our departure would be March 4. This was a bit later than we wanted to leave, but we waited until that day because of the importance of this ancient tradition. Stormy weather dominated right up to that date, and we departed Beding with clear skies and clear heads.
The busy clamor of goats and sheep echoed across the hillside and the poignant smell of yaks filled the crisp clean air. Sherpanis vigorously worked the prolific potato fields that enveloped every usable flat space. The Sherpas were starting to move out of their lower village and make their seasonal move up to Beding and then Na, the highest summer village, in order to plant more potatoes and prepare for the upcoming tourist season. But where we were headed, there would be no tourists, nor any Sherpas. Though normally staged with an average of one trekking group a day in the high season, the way east was totally deserted. We did not encounter a single tourist from the time we left Kathmandu until we returned. The reason was plain: The Trakarding Glacier was gripped by snow.
We made slow but steady progress and in three days established an advanced base camp at 4,700 meters, intending to climb the mountain’s west face. Here the narrow hanging valley between Chobutse and Takargo actively spills rocks into the Trakarding Glacier.
The next day dawned clear, and we made a reconnaissance trip up into the valley to scout our route. Our fears of a dry Himalaya came true. While the lower elevations were collecting snow, the higher wind-swept faces looked dry. Research photos had led us to believe the face would be covered in ice; instead it was dry and barren. Rockfall clattered down the face.
We spent the night near the mountain’s base in order to make a complete assessment, and the next morning it was obvious: We did not want this risk. We quickly retreated back to our advance base camp and reformulated our plans.
We had seen pictures of the mountain’s east side, but were unsure whether it would offer a better alternative. There was only one way to find out, which required a long hump to reach. We packed seven days’ worth of food, leaving just a couple days of supply at our advance base camp, and then we headed up the glacier.
We began by hiking the normal route toward Tashi Laptsa pass. Up to the head of the Trakarding Glacier, then up a steep rock headwall to gain the detached Drolamba Glacier, then a long trudge up ice fields and moraines past Takargo, then back up a side-glacier to the mountain’s east face. It was a grueling two-day journey, but we were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at the base and saw that there might be a feasible route. The face was complex. A colossal hanging glacier guarded most of the middle face. Above that, a fortress of rock and icy flutings extended across its entirety. We would have to pick our way through it like an obstacle course.
The next morning we made the final approach to the base over hard glacial ice. There was no snow accumulation on the wind-swept glacier at this elevation. Threatened by the mas- sive hanging glacier that drew across most of the face, we were nervous about finding a safe way through the initial rock band that immediately impeded progress. Immense amounts of rocky and corniced terrain rose above our heads. Fortunately, cool temperatures on the face kept everything in place.
In a couple leads we weaved in and out of rocks, made some tricky moves, and soon broke free of the rock band and onto easier slopes. Now unroped, we continued up snow slopes heading for a couloir that bypassed the hanging glacier on its right side. The way became arduous again as deeper snow slowed our progress.
Late in the afternoon we finally broke over the glacier and onto a long bench that took us back south to a bivy near the mountain’s east ridge. The east ridge is fairly prominent down low, but at the point where it meets the hanging glacier the ridge disappears into the eastern headwall of the peak. We dug out a bivy and settled in for a long, cold March night.
Right in front of us, a comprehensive view of the Khumbu unfolded. In the glow of the fading evening, bands of yellow and pink light and contrasting blue shadows brought brilliant intensity to the world’s most famous peaks. A luminous sunset on Everest and Lhotse was matched only by a radiant sunrise the next morning over Makalu.
On March 12 we awoke at first light and geared up for our final push to the summit. The first obstacle was a stubborn serac that blocked the way to the upper headwall. David made quick work of two pitches of 60° glacial-ice. Low-angle snow led to the final headwall.
The first lead was mine and I dispatched a ten-meter 80° bergschrund followed by 60° alpine ice, for a full 60-meter pitch. David swapped leads and continued up the ice, making a tricky traverse past some rocks. I led two more pitches of ice, with an abrupt 80° serac break-over into a nice 65° runnel. Things were going well; we felt strong and climbed efficiently.
David took the last lead to the ridge crest, which was perhaps the most interesting. Seventy-degree serac ice led to the base of a massive cornice/ice cliff. Traversing under it to the right, he made tenuous moves through weird snow and ice features, digging a path upward and finally climbing through a natural break that led to the 6,756-meter southern sub-peak on Takargo’s south ridge.
The summit was physically close, but before us was the mental crux of the route. We were now tired and feeling the high elevation, and a bitterly cold wind swept up from the west. A lack of protection meant we had to be extra cautious, as one slip would mean a 1,200-meter ride down the west face.
We carefully picked our way across the corniced crest and an hour later arrived at the true summit. There were three high points, each about 60 meters apart, that all appeared to be equal height. In order to be thorough, we visited each one and tried to gauge which was the true summit. In the end, we settled on the middle point as being the probable highest. Here a huge detached cornice on the other side of the ridge crest allowed a small reprieve from the wind. We sat and enjoyed our success for about 20 minutes.
The weather was changing fast. Huge billowing clouds poured in from the west. Already, Kang Nachugo and Melungtse were no longer visible. It was time to leave.
We vigilantly retraced our steps back across the ridge. From the sub-summit, we down-climbed 30 meters of snow in order to reach a suitable spot to sink our first V-thread anchor. Using our standard technique, we pulled the rope through the V-thread hole, thus leaving no trace of our ascent on the mountain. After two rappels it started snowing lightly, causing spindrift to pour down the face. Seven 60-meter rappels brought us to the safety of our high bivy.
We were nervous about our location. If it snowed heavily, our descent would be extremely avalanche prone, leaving us stuck waiting for better conditions.
“What to do you think about the weather?” I asked David.
“Let’s just not talk about it right now,” he replied.
He was right, no reason to get worked up about it, since there was nothing we could do. We were way out in the middle of nowhere with very little supplies. The situation could become dire.
Luckily it stopped snowing during the night. We awoke to clear skies and let out a huge sigh of relief. At this point we were on a mission to get out of there. We crossed the bench and carefully descended slopes next to the hanging glacier. We down-climbed and rappelled through the rock band, eventually reaching the relative safety of the glacier below.
We felt great satisfaction with the accomplishment, but knew what lay ahead: three very long days of laborious slogging. Intense afternoon snow and lightening storms plagued our exit from the upper valley.
We arrived safely in Beding to a warm welcome from the community. We told tales of our adventure, showed pictures, and drank chang for three days before making our final departure. It was a successful trip on so many levels. The ice climbing and the peak’s first ascent mattered to us, but equally important was the relationship with our new Sherpa friends. These experiences will long outlast memories of the climbing, and the falling.
Area: Rolwaling Himal, Nepal.
Ascents: After discovering an untapped ice-paradise in the upper Rolwaling Valley and putting up a dozen new waterfall routes, David Gottlieb and Joe Puryear made the first official ascent of Takargo (6,771m), March 11–13, 2010. They climbed a gully on the right side of the east face to reach a large glacier shelf, traversed this left, and then climbed seven ice pitches to the south summit before following the ridge north to the main top (1,000m, TD). The snowy alpine-style approach added another week to the adventure.
About the author:
On October 27, 2010, Joe Puryear was attempting an unclimbed line on Labuche Kang in Tibet with David Gottlieb when he broke through a cornice low on the route. Unroped, he fell 700 feet to his death. His wife, Michelle Puryear, found this article and these photos on Joe’s computer. His obituary is in the In Memoriam section of this Journal.