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British alpinists climb a virgin north face to 7000-meter summit in Tibet

Posted on: October 21, 2016


British climbers Nick Bullock and Paul Ramsden took full advantage of a rare permit in Tibet by climbing a new route—The North Buttress (ED+ 1600m)—in alpine style to the summit of Nyainqentangla South East (7046m) on October 2-8. This may be the first time the South East summit has seen footprints.

Topo of Nick Bullock and Paul Ramsden's North Buttress route (ED+ 1600m) on Nyainqentangla South East. Their descent on the east ridge is marked in green. [Photo] Nick Bullock Topo of Nick Bullock and Paul Ramsden's North Buttress route (ED+ 1600m) on Nyainqentangla South East. Their descent on the east ridge is marked in green. [Photo] Nick Bullock

"These mountains are very rarely visited," Ramsden said. "Initially you have the difficulty of getting a permit. Next you have the bad weather, which meant that until recently there were very few pictures showing the potential of the area. As far as I can tell from the Alpine Club's Himalayan index, the main summit has seen a couple of ascents and the central summit has seen one ascent, but until our visit the South East summit was unclimbed."

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Bullock said they are likely the first party to attempt a climb from the north side of the mountain. In his blog, he describes the appeal of the area's remoteness and uncertainty: "To our knowledge we were the first Westerners to explore this valley on the north side of the Nyainqentangla peaks. 'No, that's not the side to climb from.... It's too steep, no one has climbed from that side.' That [statement] always makes me warm. Truth be told, hardly anyone had climbed from either side [of] the small sub-range, which holds the four highest mountains in the whole of the thousand-mile East and West Nyainqentangla. [It] was an enigma, an unknown, [for which it was] very difficult to get permission, a magician's trick, but the Yorkshire man who sat on my right had somehow managed it."

Bullock scopes the line [Photo] Paul Ramsden Bullock scopes the line [Photo] Paul Ramsden

Their North Buttress route takes the central line on a steep, triangular face of rock and ice that led to an arete and the summit. The men spent five days climbing to the top and two days descending by another route off the mountain's east ridge, which turned into a risky ordeal.

Bullock wrote of their first sighting on the approach: "The mystery face opened, it was dramatic, triangular, overhanging, a wonder... The charge between Paul and myself crackled. This face, this unclimbed face on an unclimbed mountain was almost impossible to describe without using superlatives. It was a dream, it had runnels, ice, fields of snow, aretes—the face twisted and turned in some warped massive monster Matterhorn way and we fathomed, from our position, that the climbing started at 5400 meters and the summit was a reported 7046 meters, making the face a mouth-puckering 1600 meters. Paul and I stood and weaved imagined lines; we didn't need to look any farther for our objective.

"The weather in the range was complicated," Bullock continued in his blog. "Most days had sun, rain, snow, wind, sleet, cloud, storm, hail. No day was the same and mostly the weather of the moment only lasted for a little while before some other form of meteorological bruising took over. This climb was not going to be one of those wait-for-a-perfect five-day forecast, which was OK, because we had absolutely no form of contact from which to get one, we were on our own. This climb was going to be a get-involved and sit out the not-so-desirable [weather] until it hopefully passed."

The men took five days to acclimatize and wait out some bad weather. They started up and had to retreat from more bad weather, leaving the gear cached for their return a day later.

Ramsden climbing on day one. [Photo] Nick Bullock Ramsden climbing on day one. [Photo] Nick Bullock

Their first night was spent in an open bivy, and the hardest climbing came on the second day. Bullock wrote: "I pulled from the top of what first appeared to be an ice romp but what was in fact one of the harder pitches, which turned into a rotten, overhanging, lung straining, gut busting [pitch]. Paul joined me looking a tad haggard for a Yorky and agreed we needed to bivy."

Bullock approaches the steep stuff on day two. [Photo] Paul Ramsden Bullock approaches the steep stuff on day two. [Photo] Paul Ramsden

Bullock leading on day two, in which the climbers encountered the hardest pitches of the route. [Photo] Paul Ramsden Bullock leading on day two, in which the climbers encountered the hardest pitches of the route. [Photo] Paul Ramsden

The good weather turned poor again on the third day, with sleet, hail and gusting wind. They reached the summit in sunshine, which enticed them to abandon their plan of descending by the way they came up, going down instead by the east ridge.

"Setting off, almost immediately on cue, the clouds chose to wrap us in our dreams, but somehow, like a homing pigeon, Paul led across ridges and down and around dubious snow-slopes stopping whenever the cloud turned pea-souper," Bullock wrote. "The cloud became even thicker, the snow whiter, the angle and territory more dangerous and after falling into three bergschrunds, we stopped and set up the tent in one of the holes found by Paul himself.... Soon after dark it began to snow, and snow and snow some more. I lay, not sleeping at all, while admonishing myself for not forcing the issue and abseiling the line we had climbed. Now we were stuck somewhere teetering on a ridge above 6500 meters in a dump of snow with limited food and limited knowledge how to get off. What were we thinking? We had climbed the line, we had our prize, this was just the way off, it didn't matter, it was a fucking way off, that's all and it was going to kill us. Day six, and it's still snowing and whiteout. We would have to stay put, but by 9 a.m. the winds abated, the snow stopped and we launched, well, we teetered and staggered. I couldn't help but voice concerns about the amount of snow hat had fallen through the night but what were we to do, sit there and hope for some kind of none-avalanche terrain miracle?"

Ramsden was happy with his tent and hammock. [Photo] Nick Bullock Ramsden was happy with his tent and hammock. [Photo] Nick Bullock

The team ended up descending another valley to avoid a "mess of glacial holes and lines" that would have been the more direct route to basecamp. "Day seven was a long arduous day following no path, just a jumble of moraine and a river, which after seven or eight hours popped us back into some form of reality near the village and house from [where] we started and the house where our Tibetan liaison officer was staying," Bullock wrote. Ramsden eventually returned with some helpers to pack up the camp they left below the mountain.

Nearing the summit on day five. [Photo] Nick Bullock Nearing the summit on day five. [Photo] Nick Bullock

"Seven thousand meters hurts!" Bullock joked in the aftermath of the climb.

The men may have never conjured the idea of climbing there if they hadn't come across a series of photographs.

"The main reason we went was because of pictures from the north side supplied by Tom Nakamura, the famous Tibetan explorer and chronicler," Ramsden said. "They showed a very big face waiting to be climbed. The next stage was getting the permit. Mick Fowler and I have been applying for Tibetan permits since our last visit in 2008 to no avail. For some unknown reason this year they said yes!"

Bullock was also surprised.

"Paul has been to Tibet before, so he had a little knowledge of the procedures, but it's so difficult to get permission we never thought it would happen," he said.

Ramsden and Bullock on the summit. [Photo] Nick Bullock Ramsden and Bullock on the summit. [Photo] Nick Bullock

If you were to ask Ramsden about his "North Buttress" route, you'd have to be more specific, as there are several routes on his resume by that name. "Paul is typically stuck in his ways and several climbs he has completed over the last several years have all been called The North Buttress!" Bullock said. "We did think to call it 'Ard,' said in a Yorkshire accent, but as I'm from Staffordshire we didn't think that would work!"

"That's really a bit of a private joke," Ramsden said. "I like mixed and ice routes, so I always climb on the north side. I also like objectively safe routes, so they are usually buttresses. As a result nearly every new route I have climbed has been called the 'North Buttress!'"

While Bullock and Ramsden were climbing Nyainqentangla, Mick Fowler and Victor Saunders succeeded in summiting the previously unclimbed North Buttress of Sersank (6100m) in the Indian Himalaya. It was reportedly the renowned duo's first time climbing together after thirty years apart.

Nyainqentangla South East (7046m). [Photo] Nick Bullock Nyainqentangla South East (7046m). [Photo] Nick Bullock

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