Sunday 11 January 2015

Day 214: Tesi Lapcha - May we pass?

At the snout of the Drolambao Glacier
Summit day.  Although the Tesi Lapcha is a pass, not a summit, it stands as high as many Nepali trekking peaks.  The least it warranted was an early start.  A handful of clouds thought so too and gathered to watch our departure - a gesture we did not appreciate.  This would not be a good place for escaping a storm.

Feeling slightly anxious, we began by moving from the glacier onto the steep flank of rock to its left.  The Polish team, just ahead of us, set up fixed ropes to protect it.  We thought the first stretch looked manageable without but their Sherpas waved us past, with their ropes still in place.  Although we didn't tie in, the presence of a lifeline within grabbing distance was reassuring.  Not only this but, as I ascended the final near-vertical section, scrabbling around for footholds, a porter reached down from the ledge above, grabbed my hand, and hauled me up.  Thank you, porter!

From here, we donned our crampons and wove our way upwards on slightly easier ground, but the path was a short cut to yesterday's frustrations.  Clambering over an unsavoury mix of rock and snow, our progress was slow and our height gain almost non-existent; we gained only horizontal miles not vertical ones.  Looking down at a flatter tract of glacier, Guy complained that the path was badly located and it would be much easier to crampon our way through the middle of the ice.  "But this is what happens when you are trying to cross the pass with porters who don't have any equipment."  In trainers with shallow grips, instead of mountain boots and crampons, the porters attached to the Polish team (and most others) needed to take a route with maximum rock coverage.  And once a path has been established, everyone else follows.

Approaching the Tashi Lapcha
(the pile of ice on the right)
But at last the long traverse ended and we stopped with the Tesi Lapcha looming directly above us.  Huge vanilla ice cream scoops bulged from the mountainside to its right, dribbling ice in the mid day sunshine, with each piece of spittle the width of an organ pipe.  Above, the peak of Pachermo scattered spindrift in the sunshine.   Behind, other glaciers, other passes, other alluring (from a distance) or forbidding (from close-up) arrangements of ice and rock sculpted the landscape.  For those whose fingers are immune to cold, it was a photographer's paradise.  But I wriggled my hands in my mittens and concentrated on the path ahead.  A series of crevasses scored the steep slope but at least their outlines looked clear - we could step across them - and the sound of a serac collapsing, while close, at least caused no visible ripples.  It was time for tunnel vision.  'Just keep going' became the only phrase in the English language.

It wasn't easy.  The air was as full of (oxygen) holes as a budget hotel blanket; our packs were still heavy (damn the three days-worth of food that remained uneaten); and the gradient wasn't in the mood to grant early bail.  I started taking fifteen steps at a time followed by twenty-five breaths.  Fifteen steps more, then thirty breaths, sometimes even fifty.  It had to be a multiple of five or ten because rules, even pointless ones, serve better than nothing when you aren't quite sure you can make it across the next few metres of ice.  Finally I saw Paul (the whippet of the team) stop, then Guy, and at last I was on the top of the pass with Ian approaching behind me.  Tesi Lapcha, after all, was attainable.  Pachermo looked on nonchalantly and spat a little more powder as a gesture of welcome.

The final steep section leading up to the pass.
At this point the obligatory team photo had to be taken, and quickly, for a sudden gale whipped around us.  (Summits and passes of the world; why do you so despise tranquillity?)  Then, as is so often the case when you have spent several days busting a gut to reach a particular point on the map, it was time to get away as fast as possible.

We descended briefly to a 'campsite' (which also played generous host to passing rockfall) but we didn't like the look of it.  Unfortunately the alternatives looked no more hospitable and we had to abseil down a steep snow gully to escape the high plateau.  With daylight fading and the temperature plummeting, speed mattered so much that we even abandoned an ice screw (there goes another pay cheque) but at least this gave us safe passage to gentler ground.  Another campsite welcomed both trekkers and any passing rocks that chose to roll by; again we declined to visit.  But we couldn't keep being so choosy.  Descending the fractured snow and rock below it by head torch, worrying all the while about the stability of what lay underfoot, we eventually decided to set up a snow camp at 5,400m.

As we pitched, it was blowing a hooly and we were in danger of losing tents.  Lighting stoves wasn't an option.  Our drinking water had run out several hours before but at least there would be no need to exit the tent in the night to pee in bitter temperatures.  After a dinner of two shortbread biscuits we lay down to shiver through a wakeful night with our tent poles swaying precariously around us.

And the toast to our successful crossing of Tesi Lapcha?  The mug of hot wine?  The laughter?   The cheers?  They would have to wait for another time.  Success can be bleak; mountains do not relinquish their prey lightly.

Ian assesses the route. Hard to see from here; but it winds up the rock buttress on the right.
Looking up ahead at the dirty snout of the Drolambao Glacier on the left.
The Tashi Lapcha is in the saddle in front of the prominent peak (Angole, 6948m)
Frustratingly grinding crampons on rock exposed on the path that
we followed (but no time to take them off).
The route to the top of the Tashi Lapcha runs directly up the snow and ice band bisecting the photo
Getting onto the path
Steep at first, the path crosses a few obvious horizontal crevasses before continuing up.
Fortunately there was an easy path through the crevasses with huge stable bridges.
Ian crossing one of the bridges with the Drolambao Glacier behind.
The last of the crevasses
Slow steady, breathe... Susan at about 5500m
Raised steps show the way to the path. That's Pachermo on the right. 
The raised steps are even more obvious here
Paul disappears into the shadow of Pachermo with about 50 vertical metres to go.
Too windy on the pass so we sheltered about 10m below for a group shot.
The view into the Sol Khumbu region showing the west face of Ama Dablam in the left-centre of view
(it's the one with the steep south-west ridge that forms the classic route)

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