Although I’d originally come to Nepal with the aim of climbing Lhotse, the fourth highest mountain in the world, just before leaving the UK another idea was voiced. Tim Mosedale, our expedition leader, had heard that Guy Cotter, from Adventure Consultants, might have a client trying to climb ‘The Triple Crown’, Everest, Lhotse AND Nuptse, all in the same season. If so this would mean fixed ropes on all three mountains, and the possibility for us to also have a crack. After a bit of enquiring we confirmed this to be the case, and so during my trek to basecamp I began frantically trying to sort out additional permits with the Nepalese ministry of tourism.
I figured that if any one of the the peaks fell through it would still be worth being on the permits and having a go. Nuptse is in the top highest mountains in the world and stands at 7,861 m. It receives very little attention primarily owing to its two big sisters (Everest and Lhotse, both over 8,000 m) being in such close proximity and stealing all the lime-light. However even its easiest route is far more technical than the standard routes on Everest and Lhotse. This, coupled with the fact that its vastly long summit ridge has many false summits, means that apparently it’s only officially been submitted around 20 times. An exciting objective indeed. And if Nuptse fell through then the Everest-Lhotse high traverse would be a cool objective, as it doesn’t get done very often at all compared with the number of people who just come along to get to the top of the big one!
If we could pull off all three summits it would be a very rare achievement - Kenton Cool and Dorje Gyalgen were the first and only pair to ever complete the feat, back in 2013 after I’d just got home from Everest. Apparently they reached a false summit on Nuptse and so weren’t credited by the Himalayan Database, but nonetheless it was an incredible feat of high altitude endurance, which the UK mainstream press had a frenzy over. I remember being amazed when I read about it, and I certainly never thought I’d get the opportunity to have a go myself. As well as myself and Tim, Jon Gupta (a very good friend of mine from my last Everest expedition) and his client ‘Strong Steve’ (Steve Plain) we’re also keen and would be fit coming off the back of their record breaking Seven Summits attempt.
So, with permits arranged, we liaised with Guy and his client Kahshin, and got the news at the end of April that the fixing on Nuptse was nearly complete and there looked like a weather window on 2nd May. This was nice and early and wouldn’t get in the way of any Everest or Lhotse attempt. I was midway through my final acclimatisation rotation at the time so I opted to stay high at Camp 2 and wait for the weather, whilst the others (Tim, Jon and Steve) decided to get a couple of days extra rest down at Basecamp. In hindsight I’m not sure which was the best option, but I know that after about a week above 6,400m I was (and still am) feeling pretty goosed.
With all of us now up at camp 2, we didn’t have the ideal start. Jon and I had seen Guy and Kahshin on 30th April to check if things would be ready for us to start the next day, but the fixing team were tired out so we were told we needed to delay a day and wait until 2nd May. So on 1st May, we wasted the day playing cards, but at about 3pm to our great surprise we saw a load of people across the valley making their way to the start of the route! We radioed Guy to find that he’d been trying to contact us all day to tell us the weather now looked bad for 3rd, so we would need to leave immediately! We needed to get to high camp that night, and then set out in the middle of the night to try summiting on 2nd. We frantically got our things together, and raced around the top of the Western Cwm to high camp for about 7pm, feeling exhausted! We made food and drank as much as we could, and then would have a few hours to ‘sleep’ before setting out. In the rush to pack Tim and I had opted for one sleeping bag to drape over the two of us. This made for an intensely cold few hours despite some vigorous spooning! Needless to say I got no sleep whatsoever!
We ended up leaving around 2am, about an hour after Guy and Kahshin. I was trying to climb without supplementary oxygen, just to see if I could. The route was immediately steep right from the tents, and initially followed an exciting, sharp, snowy ridge. The moonlight revealed a huge drop to both sides, and beneath us back to the tents. I just about managed to keep up with Tim, on oxygen, but found it really exhausting. Jon and Steve had left 15-20 mins after us and caught us after a couple of hours, Steve on oxygen and Jon also without. The four of us gradually began to catch up with Guy and Kashin.
The route was very challenging despite the fixed ropes (each was only secured by one piece of protection, which is usually a bit of a no no when climbing). The main challenge was the sustained steepness, which didn’t let up for the entire route. But also the snow was soft and useless and often overlying bullet hard ice or rounded granite. I usually have a rule to only use fixed ropes as a backup, or for balance, as I don’t like to trust the anchors, but on this terrain it was full body weight on the ropes most of the way up! It was very hard going, especially without supplementary oxygen, but whilst I was still on an upward trajectory I was tempted to keep going without.
Eventually the ridge terminated and we reached steep mixed ground. The sun began to rise, revealing the most spectacular views back down to the Western Cwm, and of Everest and Lhotse. We caught Guy and Kahshin around 7am. The winds had picked up and the fixing Sherpas above us were struggling to see through the wind-propelled snow flurry. We spent 45 minutes huddled on the side of a slope discussing their situation over the radio, trying to decide whether or not to continue. I got cold whilst waiting so decided to start using the oxygen I was carrying. Eventually the wind calmed and we received news from basecamp that the weather was set to improve further through the morning, so we pressed on...
Another couple of hours passed and the views kept getting better and better, which was some consolation for the difficulty of the climb up in the thin air. The summit was getting tantalisingly close and we could see the angle starting to ease off just above. Unfortunately, however, the Sherpas up above (who by this point we had nearly caught up with) had come across dangerous snow on the summit slopes, and were beginning to tire after this, and their previous days of rope fixing. After some deliberation on the mountainside we had to make the difficult call to turn around, only about 200m from the summit.
It only took a few hours to get back down to high camp, with a combination of steep arm-wraps and abseils. We were really tired arriving back at high camp, but the thought of another night sharing a sleeping bag was enough to spur us on to camp 2 in the Western Cwm.
Of course it was a huge blow having got so close to the summit but not quite made it, but it definitely felt like we made the correct decision. It was still an amazing day out with some of the most remarkable views I’ve ever seen, that I’m sure will stay with me for a very long time. I’m hugely grateful to the fixing and climbing Sherpa’s, without whose help we would not have got to where we did, and also to Adventure Consultants, and my climbing buddies Tim, Jon and Steve. And now, back down at base camp, it’s time to rest and recuperate, and who knows what the rest of the season out here will bring...