Eternal Snow

Posted on: October 1, 2006


[Left] The north and west faces of Kajaqiao (on the left, 6447m) and Manamcho (6264m) in Tibet's Nyainqentanglha East Range. The Fowler-Watts line follows the right-trending corner system on Kajaqiao's west face before joining the northwest ridge to the summit. The Japanese explorer, Tamotsu Nakamura, popularized the Nyainqentanglha East, but of the range's 150 or so 6000-meter peaks, only two had been climbed at the time of the British 2005 expedition. [Right] Mick Fowler enjoying the first bivy on Kajaqiao, after three days of struggling through the heavy snow that would plague him and partner Chris Watts during the approach and the climb itself. Behind him lie the south-facing slopes of the lower mountains, at the edge of the Nyainqentanglha East Range, a "closed" region of Tibet. [Photo] Tamotsu Nakamura and Chris Watts

The ice-coated tent fabric slapped against my face. It was night. I'd woken up, alone and inverted in my sleeping bag. What had happened to Chris? Where were my boots? What was going on? Through the numb dark, my consciousness slowly coalesced: I was stormbound high on Kajaqiao, a secluded mountain in a "closed" region of Tibet, far from any help. Whatever was happening could only be serious.

Kajaqiao. After I'd fought through nearly two years of bureaucratic challenges to get to the mountain, its name, its spelling, even its pronounciation ("Chachacho") rolled easily off my tongue. The literal translation—"Hands-Held-Together-in-Prayer-for-God Peak"—summed up the mountain's distinctive shape and beauty. From the moment Chris Watts and I had seen its photograph in the Japanese Alpine News, we'd felt an irrepressible urge to reach its summit. But visiting Tibet's Nyainqentanglha East Range, where the mountain lies, requires a morass of permits—from the Chinese police, army, local governor and Beijing bureaucrats, to name a few. Such red tape keeps all but the most obstinate mountaineers away.

Mick Fowler enjoying the first bivy on Kajaqiao, after three days of struggling through the heavy snow that would plague him and partner Chris Watts during the approach and the climb itself. Behind him lie the south-facing slopes of the lower mountains, at the edge of the Nyainqentanglha East Range, a “closed” region of Tibet. [Photo] Chris Watts

Adam Thomas and Phil Amos were two such chaps. In 2003 they'd attempted Kajaqiao from the south, but their map turned out to be wrong, and after impassable roads held them up for nine days, an intervening ridge prevented them from even reaching the mountain's base. They'd then tried another peak, only to be beaten back by cold and wind at just over 6000 meters. But when I met them for the first time, Adam regaled me with boisterous tales of their exploits. The more taciturn Phil chipped in with comments that made it clear he was equally eager to return. My own curiosity intensified.

So did that of Chris, who'd been a friend and climbing partner for many years. Winter ascents in Scotland with him back in the 1970s had led to our first trip outside Europe in 1982, to Peru, where we climbed a new route on the south face of the Cordillera Blanca's Taulliraju. The experience had hooked me on Greater-Range mountaineering, but Chris's biking passion vied for his time. Kajaqiao would be his first expedition in nine years. But based on our past experiences, I had no qualms whatsoever about either his ability or his willpower.

In 2004, at the last minute, the four of us failed to get all of our permits. In the interim, the renowned Nyainqentanglha East photographer and explorer, Tamotsu "Tom" Nakamura, in his characteristically helpful manner, forwarded detailed maps and photographs. Finally in October 2005 we arrived in Tibet.

October 17: we peered out our hotel window in Nagchu. A dusting of snow blew around the courtyard, and a group of well-muffled yak herders wearing fox-fur hats leaned hard into the biting wind. The temperature stubbornly hovered below freezing. Our current altitude was still 2000 meters lower than the summit of Kajaqiao.

"Not quite your average beach holiday," Chris said.

Although we already had eight separate permits, our liaison officer, whom we knew simply as "Jimi," still had to get another one. We waited, at the edge of so many unknowns. Out of the 150 or so peaks over 6000 meters in the Nyainqentanglha East Range, only two had been climbed. Photographs of the area revealed tiny rural villages dominated by immaculately kept monasteries. Alongside the Chinese steel and concrete, a thriving Buddhist Tibetan culture seemed to persist.

I'm intrigued by people who choose extreme ways of life. The idea of spending years in solitary confinement simply to demonstrate devotion interests me, not because I want to do it, but because it contrasts so sharply with the values of my childhood. My mother died when I was very young; my father, a printer, was a practical man who gave me an average working-class London upbringing. Both at home and at school I was encouraged to be sociable and pragmatic. The world I knew contained nothing like the isolation of rural Tibet or the mental hardship of serious Buddhism.

But as a climber I had, in a way, chosen a vocation on the edges of mainstream society. From my expeditions I knew a little bit about early hours, cold places and fasting (the latter never deliberate). And at times, during precarious and wild moments, I also knew a little about giving up all attachments to achieve a goal so absurd it might almost be sacred. Maybe there were some similarities between the commitment of a Buddhist monk and that of a high-altitude mountaineer after all.

A full day of driving along a 250-kilometer dirt track brought us from Nagchu to the regional center of Lhari. Yaks, small mud huts and nomads' tents, interspersed with impressive piles of beer bottles, gave way to a mile-long concrete dual carriageway with streetlamps and lock-up shops. On the pavement a group of nomads with wraparound yakskin coats and red braids in their jet-black hair butchered a yak.

We ate lunch in a standard Chinese backcountry eating unit with a metal roller blind. The owners had responded to government financial incentives to move to Lhari. That month, the Chinese government was completing a railway that would shuttle passengers between Lhasa and the huge industrialized towns farther east. The cultural remoteness that had attracted us so much to this area might be fleeting.

When we left the restaurant, the severed yak head hung forlornly on pristine metal railings. Somehow it seemed a symbol of two cultures striving to live side by side.

Thirty-five kilometers later we reached Tatse (population 40), a tiny village on the meadows above the Yigong Tsangpo River, overlooked by a monastery. By now we had left most signs of Chinese culture behind. A few people came out to see us, including one or two monks in dark red robes, who stood silently on the fringe of our group.

The older residents held back, but the youngsters rushed forward and, via our interpreter, Tenzing, asked lots of questions: How did we intend to get up? Would we use axes? How would we cope with the cold? They remembered the Japanese reconnaissance trips as well as a Japanese attempt on Kajaqiao. Some of them had portered for the Japanese and would be able to show us their base camp. We hadn't known about an attempt, so we were relieved to hear that, although the team had spent a month or so in the area, they hadn't reached the summit. What caused them to fail we were unable to discern.

An elderly woman stepped forward from the group. "If anyone ever stands on the summit," she said, "it will snow forever." I was a bit taken aback. Permits or not, we didn't want to offend the locals. Her voice seemed to be an isolated one, however, and the younger residents' enthusiasm had general support.

The porters arrived on motorbikes; they roared away while we trailed far behind. At a bridge, they stopped to wait for us, then left their bikes and began to walk up the hillside. Six hours or so after starting, we arrived at the former Japanese base camp at 4800 meters.

We awoke to some twenty-five centimeters of snow and to lower temperatures than we had expected. The eggs that the porters had padded with scrunched-up paper and transported with so much care had frozen solid.

Kajaqiao, and the other mountain that dominated the head of the valley, Manamcho, looked as inspirational as they had in the photographs, even if the north face of the former was completely white. The prevailing wind whipping over the west ridge must have plastered snow onto the lee side. By the time we were ready to make an attempt, a meter must have fallen. We were beginning to wonder if the old lady was right, and our presence had indeed provoked the beginnings of an endless snowfall.

To read the full text of this article, DOWNLOAD the digital issue in our app or BUY THE BACK ISSUE in our online store. Or even better, SUBSCRIBE to join our community and get this "coffee-table book masquerading as a magazine" (Lynn Hill) four times per year.