“Weather changing“, Nima Sherpa mumbels in the freezing morning, nodding in direction of snowfluted Bigphra Go Shar (6729m), rising sharp up behind our airy bivaouc spot on a rocky outcrop at 5000m in the immense Drolambu icefall. Clouds of snowdust blow over the ridge on the rythm of heartbeats. Not even a breeze up here. Sun rays set the highest peak agloam. The librarian silence is only broken by huge roars of invisible avalanches coming down the Gakoshir Himal.
The Rolwaling Himal lies to the west of the world-reknown Khumbu, hosting the world’s highest one called Everest. This remote valley, skirting the Tibetan border provides a wild and potential dangerous access route into its famous neighbour district through the glaciated and airy Tesi Lapcha pass (5755m).
The aproach towards the feared pass is of an unsurpassed beauty. The Rolwaling valley is walled by tremendous steep granite faces culminating in snowfluted crests and peaks like Garin Shankar (7195m), Tsoboge (6689m) and Chekigo (6257m). The area is protected in a conservation area, acting as a wildlife corridor between Langtang National Park and Sagarmatha National Park.
A roaring torrent thunders through virgin forrest, hosting, among the greater himalayan species, swinging families of monkeys which would almost snap my hat while they sway down from the canopy in curiosity for the passing strangers through their untouched habitat. Walking up here, reminds us of untouched valleys in far away Central-Patagonia.
The valley has only one settlement worth mentioning, Beding. The village is perched against the lower grantie wall of Garin Shankar Himal above a colourfull monastery. We cross into more then one Sherpa who are missing one or multiple fingers, a tragic reminder of cruel ascents. The Sherpa of our lodge scaled Everest 8 times an was Messner‘s climbing Sherpa during multiple of his non-solo ascents.
Beyond Beding, the V-shaped valley opens into an U-shaped one. Green is waved goodbye. Grey and white is welcomed. A huge moraine wall blocks of the immense, milky glacial lake of Tsho Rolpa at a lofty altitude of 4580m. The hurling speed of which the feeding Trakarding Glacier is melting, makes this vast body of water a gigantic time bomb, which one day will cause a devastating GLOF, turning the valley further down in a nightmare out of proportions. Thank you global warming!
Our simmering gas stove melts crushed ice chunks from the steep ice gully we’re about to climb through to reach the snowy flats of the side moraine of the Drolambu ice. Tucked in all my layers, my eyes peek through the tent zippers and are attracted to the small yellow dot on the grey chaos far below. The Trakarding glaciar fills the whole valley ahead. Tsho Rolpa doesn’t give a wrinkle. Scattered dust clouds betray that parts of the side moraine have given way to gravity and have spitted out their rock and dust to the Trakarding.
Yesterday we overtook a team of 4 Swiss alpinists on the way to Pumori (7161m) with in their wake a huge expedition crew of overloaded porters, hauling kitchen and toilet tents, keresene stoves, tables and fresh produce. We’re happy we have chosen the fast and light aproach of a small team with 1 climbing Sherpa guide and 2 porters, carrying our climbing gear and food. When I zipped the tentdoor under the rising moon last night, I still distinguished a worrying amount of wavering headlights crawling their way through the dangerous labyrinth of boulder debris on the Tarkarding towards the place where I noticed the yellow dot just before dusk.
An easy scramble throught the steep ice gully in the icefall puts us on the vast Drolambu glacier. Nima was right. “We to move quickly” he maunders in his broken English. The windchill takes a huge plunch. An intermediate breeze turns into constant windblow. The first clouds appear and move in a hurling speed over the pyramidal Teng Ragi Tau (6943m) ahead. I’m scanning around in search for the sound of the jumbo jet I mean to experience from close range. The wind funnels its way over the Tesi Lapcha Danda ridghe through our aimed pass. That’s mean we’re gonna fly.
We rope up and strap on the crampons. The scenery is mindblowing and only rivaled by what we experienced on the traverse we made over the Biafo and Hispar glaciers in the Karakoram mountains in Pakistan a couple of years ago. Numerous rarely climbed 6000m-peaks scatter the horizon and border the Drolambu-bassin.
The snowdrifts on the mushroomed Pacharmo Peak (6273m), an easy climb on a less windy day, looks like an impregnable settling. After some victory pics we quickly descend through broken crags and through a steep rocky gully in which we are reminded of the hostility of this place. A small avalanche of rocks thunders down the gully, forcing us to take shelter behind an overhanging rockband. Back down on the glacier, a small memorial confronts us with previous unlucky pass befores on this route.
Tired from the traverse and longing for more oxygen-friendly atmosphere, we continue until after dusk until we reach the first settlement in the valley, Thyangbo kharkha. At night the wind batters our tent canvas.
The next day we reach Namche Bazar, which by the evening is completely covered in freezing fog. The bad weather had settled in. A Sherpa is never wrong. We shift our original plan to cross the technical and tricky glaciated Ambu Lapcha (5800m) pass to get towards our next goal Mera Peak (6476m). We choose for the less weather-dependant acces route over the Zatrwa La pass (4610m) instead.
“Extreme hard wind” “Our tent almost collapsed” “Stranded at high camp, no one dared to leave the tents” “I got sick from the altitude” was the encouraging news we got when we crossed into failed expeditions. The succes rate on the peak was not even exceeding 10% this season. But hey. We’re Belgians. The bravest among the Gauls. But we knew, it would not be walk in the park.
The Mera contains three main summits: Mera North, 6476 metres; Mera Central, 6461 metres ; and Mera South, 6065 metres, as well as a smaller distinct summit from just south of the Central Peak but not marked on most maps of the region. It is the highest of the so called classified “trekking peaks” and quite popular, as it welcomes some 2000 climbers attempting it each year. Four factors would determine succes against failure: acclimatisation, wind, stamina and well… some luck.
The approach through the mezmerizing Inkhu Khola valley is out of a fairytale. Virgin conifer, maple and rhodedendron forrest cover the lower flanks emerging in a high altitude, mountain tundra with autumn colouring the grasses in a roasty red. The area is protected in the Makalu-Barun Conservation Area, but still we surprise locals cutting wood as there is not even the slightest safeguarding by rangers or whatsoever. The same sad practices we would discover in the adjacent and well-known Sagarmatha National Park, internationally claimed to be well managed.
The Inkhu Khola is dominated by spikey peaks Kusum Khangkharu with its twin summit and the lofty Kyasar (6770m) which changes perspective as we climb higher and turn east towards the Mera La pass. Altouhgh quite acclimatised and on a prosperous progress, our sherpa, as a fully consummate coach, would send us up surrounding ridges on shorter approach days. “After Dal Bhat you walk there” (pointing at a far distant ridges high above) “Good for summit day” As compliant puppils we would struggle up with a full stomach, collapsing into deep sleeps after each diner.
Mera La base camp (5250m). At night we barely sleep. Frantic wind snorts the tent canvas. Summit fever? Exhaustion? Overdosis altitude? Anyway, in the morning the want for moving up to high camp at 5700m is low. During breakfast it strikes us that the flanks and summit are enjoying a quite day in the raying sun. No clouds. Rare and very little snowdrifts. Why not trying a summit push in the mid of the day from basecamp?
By 0930AM we’re on the flanks in fully glaciarequipment. A normal attempt is made from high camp, starting in the wee hours of the night. After a fluent 1,5 hour we’re passing by high camp. By now small windgusts would blow small ice particles in our face. Fully layered we continue our onslaught of the ice. We proceed quite fast, even in Sherpa standards. We jump crevasses in stead of zigzagging around. Nima chuckles. “Me happy Sherpa” “You strong” Above 6300m the tempo slackens consideraly. The thin air made us gasp for air every 10 steps. This is hard work. The body has enough of this marathon, but the mind struggles on. By 0130PM we almost crawl on the a smaller distinct summit just south of the Central Peak. There is not even a breeze. An Australian team just starts their descend. They left high camp at 0300AM this morning and are astounded by our efforts from base camp in such short time. Later we would learn that only the Australian team and us were succesfull in the last 10 days.
The mountain paranoma from this Himalayan balcony is beyond comprehension. 5 eight-thousand metre giants scatter the skyline. Everest (8848m), Kangchenjunga (8586m), Lhotse (8516m), Makalu (8485m) and Cho Oyu (8188m). The 1st, 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th from the 14 highest summits this world is rich. My altimeter displays 6420m. We’re happy with our achievement and decide to descend in a comfortable way in stead of exhaust ourselves completely trying to bag the Central and North Peaks. We thank the mountain gods and wave some budhistic prayer flags into the sky. By 0430PM we are back in our sleeping bags sipping hot thea. The sun sets again and we can’t stop smiling.
The coming 2 weeks we would spend on the, by the time of the year, deserted trails of the Everest Base Camp and Gokyo Lakes with a crossing of the Cho La pass and exhausting up and down walk out to Jiri, closing the circle by a stone throw from where we left 5 weeks ago.
We’re heading home now for a week celebrating X-Mass holidays with family and friends. On the 2nd of January, we’ll pack our packraft and head for our 3rd prolonged exploration of Patagonia.