On the north east pillar of Tengkangpoche (6487 m, Nepal), the first attempt to climb in early October by Tom Livingstone and Matt Glenn ended in a bad fall in an artificial climbing passage. Tom injured his hand, still far from the summit, and the team decided to descend. Ten days later, but the snow had turned the mountain white. Is this monster project still be possible ?
Of all the reasons to bail from climbing a mountain, I didn’t think this one would be so bad.
Storms have rolled in, heavy spindrift pushing my head down into my shoulders. Drilling a v-thread into ice is a lot harder when you can’t see your hand in front of your face. Doubt has clouded my head and heart. Could this really be possible? I’ve thought, looking at the ground. My partner and I have reached « unclimbable » features, devoid of holds to climb or cracks for protection, and felt the sting of defeat.
But to cut my little finger? Of all the reasons to bail, this seemed like the most pathetic and ego-punishing.
The peaks had been transformed, now completely plastered with snow
The doctor in Thame valley winced when he saw my finger.. « Hmm… that needs cleaning, » he said, squirting more iodine into the wound. He slowly dressed it then gave me antibiotics.
Five days later, the clouds cleared. Matt and I could finally see the mountain-tops. The peaks had been transformed, now completely plastered with snow. I nursed my bandaged finger and swore. I was pissed off about my injury, and glad the forecast showed another opportunity for us to try something – although 80 kph winds were also predicted. I was grateful Matt was still psyched and wasn’t outwardly annoyed at me for blowing our best opportunity. We walked back up to our tea house in Thengbo, optimistic but quiet.
Quentin’s stashed pack
We decided Tengkangpoche’s north-east pillar was again our most logical option after the bad weather. The surrounding peaks of Kongde Ri, Kwande and Tengi Ragu Tau remained buried in powder snow which transformed very slowly due to their northerly aspect; they also avalanched often and remained dangerous; Tengkangpoche’s pillar was steep and mostly devoid of snow; it was also cleaning the quickest and received some sun; the pillar had a low avalanche danger and would be slightly sheltered from the strong westerly winds; plus we had gained knowledge of the first section.
we shouldn’t have taken this « easy » or « lazy » option
We also decided to use some bars, gas and a few items of equipment that we’d seen in Quentin’s stashed pack. The food was either out of date or soon going out of date, and some of the gas canisters were showing signs of rust. In hindsight, we shouldn’t have taken this « easy » or « lazy » option, and it wasn’t the best decision. At the time, we reasoned we would each save a kilo or two of weight on the first day of climbing. It wouldn’t make the difference between climbing the mountain or not, since the pack was low on the mountain, but the weight-saving was useful.
We had the necessary food, gas and gear in base camp, but the rapid change of conditions, the failure of our first attempt and the knowledge of what to expect on that first day meant we chose this easier option. In my messages with Quentin, he’d implied the gear was « going bad. » Matt and I also agreed that if we bailed from the pillar, we’d replace everything we had used with our excess food and gas, thus leaving the stash in its original condition.
We packed our bags, feeling a sense of déjà vu from our first attempt about ten days ago. I threw the same items into the same rucksack, bouncing to the electronic music blasting from the speaker.
« Are you going for more acclimatisation? » Sherku asked.
– We’re going up there! I said excitedly, pointing to the pillar.
– Oh! he exclaimed. I’ll watch for you.
The next morning, Sherku again helped us by carrying some of our gear to the base of the mountain. Instead of soloing dry rock in our double boots, this time we donned crampons and waded slowly through unconsolidated powder snow, taking turns to dig for a few metres. Finally reaching steeper ground and the feature we’d dubbed « the smiles », we moved faster, zig-zagging through the lower section of the pillar. On the harder mixed pitch below the bivy, I was prepared; I hauled my pack and knew what pieces of gear to place. I’d been dreading this section but it actually went smoothly – it’s always better to expect the climbing to be difficult!
I’ve learnt not to think too much about what may happen on an alpine route. Time will tell.
We reached the bivy, satisfied the ascent had passed smoothly so far. Early on the second day, we launched into the lower headwall. I felt anxious about the climbing above, but through experience and many sleepless nights, I’ve learnt not to think too much about what may – or may not – happen on an alpine route. Time will tell, and the best way to find out was to start.
By sunrise – now only on this wall for 45 minutes – I was aiding again. I reached the second pitch (which I’d dubbed « the Livingstone lob ») and this time climbed without incident. The cracks were more choked with ice than our previous attempt, and the temperatures noticeably cooler. « Not much point in using the rock shoes! » I joked. Matt jugged the single rope wearing his down jacket, then took over. He aided another two pitches, steadily inching higher. « Is it legit to aid on your ice axes? » and « watch me » were telling shouts which broke the long silence. We rappelled back down to our bivy late in the afternoon, deciding to fix our tagline and then single rope in place in order to re-ascend them the next morning. This would hopefully give us a fast start through the lower headwall, gunning for the next snow terrace above.
On day three we again woke early, apprehensive about the 300 metres of hard (for us) aid climbing above. Rubbing our fuzzy eyes, we robotically lit the stove, heated water, ate our porridge, racked up and packed the tent. A pre-dawn morning is always a mixture of emotions: wanting to stay in the warm sleeping bag whilst also trying to start climbing as quickly as possible. We took turns to jug the ropes in the pastel-coloured light. I tried to switch off my brain as I slid the jumars methodically up the 6mm tagline, eyeing the fuzzy orange cord. I was glad to be moving upwards efficiently, but also disliking the act and risk involved. We prefer to free climb whenever possible, but in this instance jugging made sense.
We followed the only cracks on this otherwise compact wall
Matt efficiently led several pitches, then I took over. We followed the only cracks on this otherwise compact wall, always chasing the arc of the sun as it slipped away, just out of reach. The tempo of aid climbing gave the belayer plenty of time to think… whilst the leader’s heart rate hammered out of their chest as they stared at the bendy half-in peg in front of their face, slowly stepping higher in the etrier…
« I almost enjoy aid climbing, » I remember shouting down to Matt. « It’s engaging and hard and it’s not as fun as climbing, but you can get into a good rhythm. » Our Nomic ice axes were now haggard, the constant placing of pegs and peckers taking its toll. The wall was impressively steep, occasional foot ledges giving slight relief.
As the sun set, I started up slabbier ground. We were relieved to have made it through the steepest section of the wall and eager to reach the next snow terrace. With slow dread we realised it was still far away. « It’s relentless; it just goes on and on, » we agreed. In the darkness I climbed into a dead-end, eventually went the correct way, tried to excavate one shit bivy, then finally found a small alcove which must’ve been taken by Quentin and Juho in 2019.
« Bleugh, » I said as Matt reached my belay late at night. Something tumbled from his harness and he swore.
« That’s my second crampon heel bail, » he said slowly.
– What?! I looked at his crampons hanging from his harness. The heel bails were obviously missing.
– I think I can make something out of cord later. Let’s get some food first.
Can we climb this thing ?
We excavated the alcove and slumped into an uncomfortable semi-spooning position. It was 1 a.m. by the time we’d eaten and half-pulled our double sleeping bag over us, and doubts began to drift: are we too tired and too slow? Can we climb this thing? We joked darkly that we’d fixed ropes on the lower part of the headwall specifically to avoid this alcove bivy… yet here we were! Thankfully, the night was calm and we could occasionally sleep, but by morning we were pretty knackered. With the morning sun agonisingly just out of reach, I slumped onto my lanyard and leant out to soak in the glow.
On the fourth day, I climbed several mixed pitches of nevé, enjoying the quicker style of movement. Some sections were only 20 cm wide and required delicate, thought-provoking swings. I welcomed the good cam placements and supportive crunch of my crampons, enjoying the more familiar feel of free climbing. I reached the snow terrace and frowned as the sun immediately left my belay, Matt jumaring silently with his boots slipping on the ice.
The real crux laid above
Finding a good bivy site and both tired, we decided to stop here, the ‘marathon pace’ of Himalayan climbing finally beaten into us. We were really psyched to have made it through the lower headwall, which was demanding – but we knew it had already been climbed. The real crux laid above. The upper headwall was the biggest « unknown » of the route, but we’d seen a right-trending ramp system from the valley and – now camped below it – were pleased to see cracks split the rock. We took stock of our food, paring out bars and – my favourite – peanut butter sachets. « We’ll run out after lunch on day seven, » I said, wishing this would be our last anyway. The piles of food were smaller each day, and we’d already begun sharing our meals. We went to sleep optimistic and hopeful, daring to believe we could make it through the wall and onto the snow ridge.
The glorious, warming, life-giving sunshine hit us as we aided on the fifth day. « Take as long as you like, » I joked to Matt. « I’m just happy to be warm whilst alpine climbing! ». He steadily progressed up the cracks we’d seen from the bivy, content to be in the sun and moving upwards. The gear was often small or fiddly but never too desperate – there weren’t lots of « body weight only » placements in a row. I took over, desperately hoping for easy ground leading out of the headwall. We could see Quentin and Juho’s highpoint just below our ramp system and really felt for them; they had come so close.
Finally turning an exposed arête with a single crack running through it, I battered in pegs and wires as hard as I could. With the wind howling on the other side, it blew pieces of ice into my cheeks. I looked up, seeing the setting sun on my face and the end of the headwall. Leaning out above the void, thousands of metres of air beneath my boots, I could see we’d made it through the upper headwall and I buzzed with relieved. I screamed back to Matt, « YEEAAHH! It goes! Also, watch me! »
Internally, I swore, not wanting to bail from here.
Matt seconded the pitch with wide, wild eyes, but he cracked a grin when he saw we’d made it through the headwall. I put my crampons on and climbed a steep pitch of thin nevé, weaving around the rocks which poked through the ice. I saw a perfect bivy site a few metres away, sheltered by a cliff band. Happiness spread through me at seeing a place to sleep so close by. We put up the tent and collapsed inside. Exchanging messages with friends via our InReach, they reassured us about the forecast. « Keep safe! » they said.
There was a final question mark in our minds – could we find a way through this cliff band we’d bivied under? On our sixth day, Matt looked for a way through this crux, both of us hoping for an easy way out. Instead we found a steep and snowy step which looked hard. Tired and buffeted by the bitter wind, I willed him to climb as fast as possible. He backed off, unsure if he could free it. « I’m not sure if it’s possible, » he said. Internally, I swore, not wanting to bail from here. « Can you switch to aid? » I encouraged, whilst grateful he was leading. With renewed energy, he tried again.
Wearing every item of his clothing, the wind whistling, Matt methodically aided through the cliff band and belayed on its lip. « This is totally wild! » he shouted down when it was my turn. He was right: the belay seemingly hanging straight over the valley in an outrageous, adrenaline-pulsing position. With my axes and crampons I then tried to pull onto the nevé slope above, my picks catching and pulling through the soft snow. Stepping onto the top piece of the belay and trying not to stab Matt, I leant into the slope and delicately held my axes, expecting everything to rip and for me to crash into the belay. With my heart thumping and breath stolen by the wind, I inched higher… until I could swing into solid nevé and inhale again.
Matt seconded with his impressively home-made crampon bails of rope. We slugged up the snow ridge, occasional ice screws giving some safety in the soft sugar. It felt « classically Himalayan, » a beautiful white arc rising towards the still-distant summit. Soon, there was basically no gear or belays, the snow unsupportive, and we teetered up tricky steps.
we were lucky to make it through
As the sun set, I took stock. « We’re still miles away. I think we’re going to have to bivy again, » I said coldly. « This thing is a monster. » Matt nodded, flecks of ice pelting his face, words now becoming expensive and tiring. We cut into the ridge and hunkered inside the tent, occasional gusts punching and shaking the fabric. « We’ve got to be finished by tomorrow, or we’ll be very hungry! » we agreed, mixing our intentions and hopes.
Matt did a brilliant job of leading on the final (seventh) day, sticking to the crest and breaking trail. I followed, strangely out of energy, watching loose snow whip from the ridge and fly into the distance. Eating an entire sachet of peanut butter, I took over with new energy.
Finally, eventually, I belly-flopped onto the 6487-metre summit of Tengkangpoche around noon, screaming down to Matt. « I can’t believe it – I can’t believe we’ve actually done it! » I said, before looking around in case there was a higher point. With so many unknown variables and so much difficult climbing, we’d been half-expecting to bail. There were so many times when we wanted an easy time, a break from the difficult or bold climbing, but the route was relentless. We’d wondered, sometimes aloud, about the cruxes: would we find a passage through the upper wall? Could we protect the snow ridge? At each moment, at each test or battle, we were lucky to make it through.
But here we were: tired, elated… and at the top.
Our descent down the east ridge was thankfully quick and straightforward. From a col, we rappelled then down-climbed about 1500 metres back into the Thame valley. Wasted, pasted in white sun cream, but deeply satisfied, we staggered back into our tea house as night fell on our seventh day.
Sherku hugged us tightly, his smile flashing brightly in our headtorches. Back safe! we texted our friends.
« That was a massive attack, » Matt and I agreed.