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Benjamin Billet and John Kelley complete first ascent of Chhopa Bamare (6109m)

Posted on: August 12, 2019


[This past winter, from February 9 through March 3, Benjamin Billet, of France, and John Kelley, of Alaska, completed the first ascent of Chhopa Bamare (6109m) in Nepal. They summited on February 28 and named their route Seto Hi'um (TD: M4 WI4 1150m), which translates as "white snow" in Nepali. Kelley had made two previous attempts to climb the peak solo, from the eastern side, after the Nepalese government opened it for permits in 2014. "The first attempt was in December of 2017. I tried to get up the East Ridge; made it up and over the east summit before turning back," he told Alpinist. "The second attempt was in March of 2018. Didn't get any farther than high camp due to snow and poor unsettled weather." Billet told Montagnes Magazine that he met Kelley on the Internet a few months before the expedition, and that this was their first time climbing together. Billet wrote the following account for Alpinist.—Ed.]

Seto Hi'um (TD: M4 WI4 1150m) on the south face of Chhopa Bamare (6109m) as seen from base camp. [Photo] Benjamin BilletSeto Hi'um (TD: M4 WI4 1150m) on the south face of Chhopa Bamare (6109m) as seen from base camp. [Photo] Benjamin Billet

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The unusual snow conditions this year completely changed our expedition's strategy. Local residents said that this was one of the snowiest winters in 25 years.

From Kathmandu, it took us seven days to reach base camp instead of three. The bus got stuck on the way to the last village of Lamabagar, and two of our three porters turned back when there was snow on the trail; thus, we had to make multiple trips to shuttle the food and gear for a 30-day expedition. From base camp, we only took the minimum amount of gear, but we still had to spend three more days getting to high camp.

Base camp. There is normally a house where the flags are, but the building is covered by 2 meters of snow. [Photo] Benjamin BilletBase camp. There is normally a shelter where the flags are, but the building is covered by 2 meters of snow. [Photo] Benjamin Billet

Looking up the south face. [Photo] Benjamin BilletLooking up the south face. [Photo] Benjamin Billet

John leading during our first day of climbing. Weather started to change. [Photo] Benjamin BilletJohn Kelley leading during the first day of climbing. [Photo] Benjamin Billet

We started the climb at 2 a.m. February 22. The weather forecast was good with a few days of clear weather and no snowfall, but we would soon find out that it was completely wrong. We started by climbing a spur, following a snow gully and doing a bit of mixed climbing (M4) before a glacier traverse. We reached the bottom of the south face at 6:30 a.m., just before sunrise. We simulclimbed hundreds of meters of WI3 on the face. Some light snow started to fall around 4 p.m. We kept climbing until 5:30 p.m. when the snowfall became too intense to continue. There was no place to bivy and small avalanches began to slide down the face. We were only able to cut a very small ledge that was just big enough to stand on; we attached ourselves to an anchor and arranged the tent as a bivy bag over our head. Standing up in the cold, with spindrift rolling overhead, made for a long and sleepless night.

Quite exhausted the next morning, we could only do a few pitches before the snow began to fall. We bivied once again on the face, but on a bigger ledge this time.

On the third day, John did a very long lead of M3/M3+ over rocks covered by 50cm [nearly 20 inches] of unconsolidated snow. It led us to the top of the south face and we could finally see the summit of Chhopa Bamare. We went down the ridge and set up the tent around 150 meters below the summit, thinking that we could make an attempt the following day. But the weather turned bad, with strong winds. We stayed stuck on the ridge for three nights at 6000 meters, unable to leave the tent.

The last morning, almost out of gas and food, we were readying to descend when the sun started to shine, so we rushed up to the summit. We reached it after a few hours of climbing on February 28 (what some people consider to be the last day of winter). [More information about what constitutes a "winter ascent" can be found here on Explorers Web.—Ed.]

Looking east toward Gaurishankar (7135m). [Photo] Benjamin BilletLooking east toward Gaurishankar (7135m). [Photo] Benjamin Billet

John Kelley starting the last pitch before the summit. [Photo] Benjamin Billet Kelley starting the last pitch before the summit. [Photo] Benjamin Billet

Benjamin Billet, left, and Kelley on the summit. [Photo] Benjamin BilletBenjamin Billet, left, and Kelley on the summit. [Photo] Benjamin Billet

Kelley melts some snow for water while Billet sets up a rappel down the face. [Photo] Benjamin BilletKelley melts some snow for water while Billet sets up a rappel down the face. [Photo] Benjamin Billet

The following day was a long one, rappelling down all the south face (around 18 rappels) and the spur to reach our high camp after seven days on the mountain. We dug through 1.5 meters of snow to find the backpack that we left behind with some gas and food.

On our way down to base camp we noticed that avalanches had covered the entire valley. There was no trace of our base camp, and we lost everything that was there (tent, climbing gear, sleeping bags, pads, etc.). If we had been there, we would probably would be under a few meters of snow at this very moment. The next day, we ran down to the closest village of yak herders. They welcomed us and fed us with huge plates of dal bhat.

Kelley shows some pictures on his phone to some yak herders on the way down to Kathmandu. [Photo] Benjamin BilletKelley shows some pictures on his phone to some yak herders on the way down to Kathmandu. [Photo] Benjamin Billet

We named the route Seto Hi'um, which means "white snow" in Nepali, as a reminder of the incredible snowfall. We graded it TD: M4 WI4 (1150m). It's a really good climb with a lot of pitches of WI3/3+ and a few harder ones. There are still a lot of amazing lines that could be opened on the south face as long as the conditions are conducive.

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