Tibet, looking back and forward
My main project for last year was an expedition to Tibet with Slovenian team (Marko Prezelj, Nejc Marčič, Martin Žumer, Luka Krajnc, Luka Stražar, Tadej Krišelj, Luka Lindič and doctor Miha Gašperin). Our objective was the 7661m high Phola Gangchen. There is one really obvious line on its unclimbed south face. For me, it is a perfect line. It has a bit of everything that I like to climb on the steep face. The difficulty of the line motivated me to put in a lot of training to be prepared. After soloing Peuterey Integrale on Mont Blanc I felt I was ready to attempt Phola Gangchen.
On the approach to our base camp when we saw the mountain for the first time, I sat down to just stare at it for a while. I looked at the photos of the face at home many times, but it was still good to finally be there and see it in person. We had a beautiful base camp by the lake at around 5000m to get acclimatized. Sometimes acclimatization can be boring, but you find ways to pass the time. Our first ascent was on Ice Tooth (6200m). We climbed the East pillar, which was a little difficult, but became easier during the mixed climbing and into the snow during the upper part of the route.
Later only Marko and I were motivated to try the line on the south face of Phola. The approach to the face was complicated and took a lot of time and energy. A giant lake, high, steep moraines and broken glaciers made it tricky, like a labyrinth. We found our way around the lake and had to clean a gully in the moraine by rolling big rocks out of the way to make our passage safe.
Our next obstacle was to try and find a way through an extremely broken glacier and icefalls to the plateau below the face. 100m below the plateau we ended up in dangerous terrain but we pushed forward until I realized that it would be too dangerous to continue. Marko had sensed it before but stayed silent knowing that I would not be satisfied if I didn’t try. An inconvenient truth after all that effort. Not discourage, we immediately started up another route.
The East side of Phola Gangches offers steep rock and mix faces in the lower part with beautiful snow ridges on the upper. With three other climbers we decided to try the climb from this side. On first day we climbed some steep mixed sections with ice pitches and difficulties around M6. Our day ended with digging snow ledges for our two tents.
Next day we climbed steep snow ridges and found a perfect bivy spot at around 6600m. The next morning after the first pitch it started snowing heavily and the trio that joined us the day before decided that they had had enough and started rappelling back down the route.
Marko and I climbed one more pitch while the snow and wind became even stronger. We decided to return to our last bivy spot and wait there for the storm to pass. The forecast was calling for only one day of bad weather with little snow and we had enough food with us so we pitched our tent and decided to wait it out. It hadn’t stopped snowing by the next morning but more than half a meter of snow had fallen over night. The heavy weather continued with zero visibility so we decided to stay put again.
The bad weather did not let up and were now worried about getting out of there safely. After another night on the ledge we decided that we could wait no longer and started our descent. We could barely see where we were going and it was difficult to find placements for our abseil anchors. After a day of rappelling in spindrifts we landed somewhere back on flat terrain.
No knowing exactly where we were we began breaking trail in chest deep snow in what we thought was the right direction. Despite being exhausted we were still in good spirits. After many hours of tough travel, a gap in the fog and the shine of the moon enabled us to see the lake where our second camp was located. What looked like a two hour mission turned into almost six hours to reach the lakeside base camp. We arrived to find our tent buried under the new snow and spent another hour digging out. After few cups of hot tea and some food and we fell asleep.
On a normal day it would have taken three and a half hours to get back to base camp but now with the new snow it seemed much further away. With huge packs we were not able to break a trail in the deep snow. When the weather cleared, the sun made the climb up the moraine to dangerous with rocks constantly rolling down at us. We decided to break trail to the base of the moraine without our packs and climb back up the moraine for our heavy packs when the sun had gone down. It was a full day of hard work and at approximately midnight we were back at the top of moraine on safe ground.
The next day was a full day mission to reach base camp. We waited for Luka and Tadej who were still breaking trail from the other side of the valley.
The hard part was over and the only thing left was to escape from base camp.
Sometimes the results don’t show even after all the effort that goes into a trip like this. Experiences like ours are part of the game and it only makes the game more interesting and real. We were unlucky with the weather but after everything, I feel very lucky and I want to go back to try again. I don’t know why, but I am motivated more than ever.