It is a major route that the British Tom Livingstone and Matt Glenn managed to climb at the end of October, on their second attempt and in 7 days to the summit and back : the north pillar of Tengkangpoche (6487 m), in Nepal. Coveted by numerous strong alpinists for the past 20 years, this pillar is a combination of purely rocky, mixed and artificial climbing, which can be very tricky. The previous rope parties failed, as best, in the last few meters of the headwall below the final ridge leading to the top. Livingstone and Glenn passed. The first of three parts of Tom’s exclusive story, and the superb images of the rope party.
Attempt 2. Day Five. Around 6000 metres on Tengkangpoche, Khumbu region, Nepal
Hanging from a single peg in front of my face, I watched as it bent and flexed with my weight. Anxiously scratching the snow, I searched desperately for another placement. The key to Tengkangpoche’s upper headwall was contained within this single crack. All our efforts up to this moment were suspended in one question: could we climb through this feature? How I’d wondered, worried, longed to see what was around the corner. Would it go?
A gale blew ice into my numb cheeks and stung my eyes, shaking the rope. Straddling the blunt arête, a thousand metres of air dropped beneath my boots. The distant valley was already dark – night was rushing. ‘Move!’ I shouted at myself, trying to maintain a pace whilst aid climbing. The building, pounding drumbeat of ‘Angel’ by Massive Attack rose in my ears, rumbling round my head.
IT GOES !!
In another metre I looked up, simultaneously registering the setting sun on my face – bright but without warmth – and the end of the headwall. Easy snow led to the summit ridge. I leant out above the void and glanced back at Matt, huddled in all his clothes. Punching my arms in the air, I screamed, ‘YEEAAHH! It goes! Also, watch me!’
a strong partnership
I was eager to climb in Nepal for a long time. The history and culture of this small but strong country is intertwined with mountains and alpinism. Since I’d already visited Pakistan three times and India once, the Nepali Himalaya seemed like a logical choice.
In September 2021, Matt Glenn and I agreed on a last-minute alpine trip to Nepal. Matt’s strength of mind compensated for his relatively green experience in the Greater Ranges. He speaks with a light Northern Irish accent and his eyes light up when he enthuses about ‘the sesh’ (hedonistic parties). I recognised in him a familiar burning psyche for difficult alpine routes.
Matt is also a member of the UK’s Young Alpinist Group, a mentoring programme I set up a few years ago. Last winter we shared a rope on the north face of La Meije, the Grandes Jorasses and Les Droites, promptly developing a strong partnership and mutual affinity for techno music.
We quickly searched for objectives which fit our requirements of a relatively short trip in October: not too high, so as to limit the amount of acclimatisation needed; not too far from civilisation, so as to limit the trekking approach; not too expensive, since we were both counting our Euros; and either something that ‘grabbed our attention,’ like an aesthetic and already-climbed line, or a new route which appeared high-quality.
I wasn’t specifically looking for a first ascent, but rather an enjoyable experience. The climbing is what matters to me.
As an aside, I’ve always considered it important for me to consolidate my experience and to have a high technical standard across the many forms of climbing. Over the last decade of my alpine ‘career,’ I’ve gone from UK trad to Scottish winter, then the Alps, Alaska, Patagonia, and the Canadian Rockies. I deliberately wanted to be at a reasonable level within each environment and discipline before trying hard things in the Greater Ranges. As always, I wasn’t specifically looking for a first ascent, but rather an enjoyable experience. The climbing is what matters to me.
I found a couple of mountains but filed them away for another time, either too high or too remote. By chance, I was scrolling around Google Earth when I came across a mysterious mountain. There was only the telltale sign of a large pointed shadow which jutted from its base. The altitude was good, there was a village nearby, and the face looked steep.
I messaged an agent (Dawa at Dream Himalaya Adventures), but he immediately replied, « that’s Tsoboje, the Slovenians’ objective! » I’d just spent 10 days in Slovenia with Christelle, seeing all my friends there. We knew of each other’s trips to Nepal, but I hadn’t asked about their ideas. I called Luka Stražar and we laughed. « You’ve discovered our plans, » he said, « and you’re welcome to join us. This could be a rematch between the UK and Slovenia, » we joked.
« Thanks, » I replied, « but if you’re going to this mountain, Matt and I will look elsewhere. » Whilst I enjoy sociable trips, I prefer to seek isolation.
The recent attempt by Quentin Roberts and Juho Knuuttila
I’d already messaged Quentin Roberts back in June 2021 congratulating him on his previous attempts to climb Tengkangpoche, a 6487-metre mountain in Nepal’s Khumbu region. He’d spent six days on the north-east pillar in 2019 with Juho Knuuttila and some more time in spring 2021 with Jesse Huey. I’d asked if he was planning to return, and if the conditions were much worse in the autumn. Quentin’s reply made it sound better in the spring (more sun and a more pleasant-looking snow ridge), so initially ruled out Tengkangpoche’s pillar for our trip.
The search continued, Matt and I feeling the pressure of our departure date looming in just two weeks. Eventually, I suggested the Thame valley: it fitted our requirements and had a host of mountains nearby: Kwande, Kongde Ri, Tengkangpoche, Tengi Ragu Tau – and several things we didn’t know the names of but liked the look of. I figured we’d find something when we got there and saw the peaks first-hand. We’d keep our options open – or as I often do: we just postponed the decision.
I’d already asked Quentin about logistics in Nepal. I messaged him again on 17 September. « We’re going exploring but I feel it’s important to be honest – Tengkangpoche is something we’re interested in! Reading about your first attempt makes me think it was a really good effort and there doesn’t seem to be a feasible way up it… but then if you went back for a second time you obvs think it’ll go…?! »
Quentin replied, « I appreciate the honesty!! It is a beautiful mountain! Yes I hope so but sadly wasn’t able to find out. Keep in touch when you’re in the khumbu I’m excited to hear how things go for you guys. Especially [with regards to] weather and conditions. if you’ve got any questions hit me up of course. Jesse and I are planning to go back in the spring. Would you be keen? Or going back to Pakistan? »
there was an enormous amount of information online from Quentin’s two previous attempts on the mountain
Over the next two days we exchanged dozens of messages about Tengkangpoche. Quentin kindly offered lots of beta about route choice, gear and logistics. Much of it was things I’d already figured out from my own experience in the mountains (take a two-person sleeping bag; try the right-trending ramp system through the upper headwall; satellite maps indicated you could descend the south side of the peak if necessary; and so on). However, I was grateful to Quentin for sharing his experience gained on the mountain.
In fact, there was an enormous amount of information online from Quentin’s two previous attempts on the mountain: blogs, photos, social media posts, a podcast interview, videos, kit lists. Their publicity had certainly generated interest within the alpine community, and I wondered if we’d meet other teams in Nepal with more concrete ideas of trying Tengkangpoche.
I asked Dawa for a permit to the Thame valley. My experience in Pakistan and India has been that permits are a bureaucratic and occasionally expensive process. On three of my trips the agent has essentially « fudged » the permit, either ignoring it or combining it with another team. I’ve heard stories of permits being issued incorrectly but the authorities being none-the-wiser, and occasionally they’re issued after the route has been climbed. Dawa explained the easiest way to get a permit was Tengkangpoche. Its altitude (sub-6500m) meant we had minimal paperwork and it was an « open » peak. With the flights hurriedly booked and only days to go, Matt and I agreed: just put Tengkangpoche on the form and we can sort it out later, if – or when – we summited anything (keeping in mind that about 50% of these trips result in not climbing anything). The permit is not a binding obligation.
We chatted and planned to meet in Kathmandu after our trips
After so much time on objectives and paperwork, it was finally time for action. We bought boxes of Clif and Kind bars (Matt baulked – he’d been eating almost nothing but Kind bars all summer!). Exploding my garage with gear, I blasted music through my speaker and bounced with energy, stuffing gear into duffles. « You rocket! » Matt said when he saw the mess; he often used the phrase to describe someone – or something – which was a bit crazy or wild. By now, after ten alpine trips to the Greater Ranges and similar destinations, I’m boring enough to have a spreadsheet to remind me what to pack; although I usually forget something. Matt and I laughed since we’d be absolutely identical: orange jacket, grey trousers, Sportiva boots, red backpack, Nomic axes, Sitta harness… the Chuckle Brothers were coming to town!
We threw a « going away party » before the flight. Amongst the guests were Gabriel and his girlfriend; Gab was going with the French Young Alpinist Team, also to Nepal. We chatted and planned to meet in Kathmandu after our trips.
I said goodbye to Christelle at the airport. « Come back safe, » she replied.
Read part two, Potential Energy : An Abortive Attempt