In the fall of 1999, Chris Warner and Brad Johnson
trekked to base camp on the south side of Shishapangma, the world's 13 tallest
peak. On the night they arrived a Sherpa from another expedition raced
into their tent. A massive avalanche had killed two American climbers: Alex
Lowe and David Bridges.
Chris and Brad, along with most of the climbers in BC,
hiked to the base of the mountain to help the surviving teammates. The storms
that battered the Himalaya that week proved
especially fatal. At least 17 climbers were killed on various peaks.
With the threat of avalanches too great, the 1999
expedition was abandoned.
Chris returned, alone, in 2001. In a non-stop 34 hour
push he climbed up and down the 7000 foot face.
Prepping for the Expedition
Wilde Lake Middle School,
Aug. 30, 2001
Ram Chandra Sunuwar packed up his beach chair and waved
goodbye to his friends at the Jersey
Shore. Our vacation was
over. It was time to pack the duffels and head back to Kathmandu. Ram, a cook and Sherpa on most of
my recent trips to the Himalaya, has spent the last two summers in the United States.
Born in a tiny village, three days from the nearest road, Ram has become a
serious world traveler. He even negotiated his way through the New York City subway system.
In the final days of his trip here, Ram and I went into
high gear, prepping for the upcoming Shishapangma expedition. Between trips to
the food store, receiving and repacking UPS shipments, and distributing the gear
between 5 giant duffels, Ram and I visited a few local schools.
Our first stop was to the gang at Wilde Lake Middle School. Bob
Keddell, a teacher here, has been spearheading the Shared
Summits curriculum team. Ram and I popped in as he was meeting his students for
the first time.
We enlisted the classes help to inspect our tents. Two
groups set up the tents, while other students shot some digital photos. Others
began to write a Shared Summits dispatch. We all had a lot of fun, and it was
great for all of us to meet before launching into a Shared Summits expedition
Immediately following the stop at Wilde Lake Middle School, Ram and I visited with
the students of Ilchester Elementary. Last year's 3rd grade class won the Yak
that Fact trivia contest during the Everest Expedition. We presented them and
the school with an engraved wooden ice axe. It will proudly hang in their
reception area. Hillary Schwartz has been our Shared Summits partner at
Ilchester since the very inception of the program. Ram and I spent 30 minutes
with her class, sharing tales of the big mountains and teaching them about
Ram's village school. The students even learned a few Nepali phrases:
"namaste" the traditional greeting and "jani ho" (let's go).
Hillary Schwartz has been named as the Howard County
Teacher of the Year and is a finalist for the Maryland Teacher of the Year. We
are keeping our fingers crossed.
Ram has now boarded a plane and is jetting to Kathmandu. I leave on
August 31st and will meet up with him on Sept. 2nd. As much as I dislike
leaving all of the wonderful things at home, I am really excited about this
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Shishapangma Dispatch: Kathmandu, Nepal
September 4, 2001
My taxi driver was obviously not a practicing Buddhist.
"Bhoudanath Temple?" I asked. He nodded and
whipped the car around, happily able to pull off a U turn on the now empty
street. It was still dark, just past 5 a.m. I was heading to Bhoudanath to meet
with Ram Chandra, my old friend and the sirdar and cook for my expedition. We
planned to meet at 6 a.m. to be blessed by the temple's monks.
The streets of Kathmandu
are usually too crowded to make good time, but in the predawn hour, the taxi
driver was able to race across town. He pulled into the darkened, tree-lined
road, collected my money, and sped off in search of a new fare. As my eyes
adjusted to the darkness, I realized that I was at Pashpatinath, the riverside
Hindu temples where bodies are cremated. The taxi driver must have thought
I would be better served with a little Hindu worship, not a Buddhist blessing.
A handful of worshippers had already arrived, and a
steady pilgrimage lead towards the river. I asked a few people about walking to
Bhoudanath. "Twenty five minutes. Follow the path, bearing right."
Seemed easy enough. The only challenge was picking my way past hundreds of
monkeys that lined the trail, hung from the trees or ran alongside me. The
young held tightly to their mothers' chests, bareley scraping the ground. It was
a bit eerie, that dark walk through the forest, with hundreds of monkeys racing
The forest ended back at the river, but the path
continued across a bridge, climbed through a small village and lead me up the
hill to Bhoudanath. The sun was now up. The sky was turning a slate blue but
held little threat of a morning of monsoon rains. Hundreds of Buddhist were
circumambulating the large domed stupa, the centerpiece of the temple. It takes
about 5 minutes to complete the walk, although I can't imagine making a
complete rotation right away. There is too much to see. Meeting with Ram and
his family, we climbed to the upper layers of the dome, scattering thousands of
pigeons as we climbed from layer to layer in a corkscrew pattern, always
heading, like a good Buddhist, clockwise.
The highest ledge system is still a hundred feet below
the temple's highest point. Above the last ledge, the dome rises another 30
feet. And sitting on top of this is a tower of brass, with Buddha's all seeing
eyes painted on each of the four sides. Prayer flags radiate from the base of
the temple, sweeping upwards to the very peak. Our eyes are drawn towards
Buddha's, and his eyes see right into your heart.
The monks were in prayer. Their lyrical chants and deep
guttural tones escaped from the monastery towards the courtyard-like temple.
Ram, his family and I took off our shoes and entered the monastery. A picture
of the Dalai Lama hung below the older statues of Buddha. A monk led us to the
front of the room and organized the things we hoped to have blessed: prayer
flags to hang in base camp, and our ice axes and crampons. The younger monks,
since so many boys study to be monks, lost their place in the chanting, as the
futuristic-looking ice axes were placed on the altar. Of course we wanted these
blessed; our lives would depend on them. In fact it is traditional to have your
ice tools and crampons blessed before each climb.
The puja (blessing) ceremonies in the Himalayas
are steeped in tradition. Our visit to a monastery in Kathmandu
was doubly important as we are heading to Shishapangma with just a Hindu (Ram)
and a Catholic (me). We'd hate to forfeit the game due to the lack of a
Buddhist. Hopefully, our trip to Bhoudanath has appeased the gods.
There is plenty to do before leaving for Tibet, but not
nearly as much as I'm used to. Our team of two is one 16th the size of this spring's
Everest team. We will use about 25 yaks on this trip (about 200 on Everest)
carrying about 1000 pounds of gear to base camp (11 tons on Everest). The
biggest logistical challenge may be getting to Tibet, as the monsoon rains have
caused big sections of the road to landslide. We still plan on leaving Kathmandu on the 6th, but the jeep journey should now
take two days, instead of one long and painful day. At each landslide, we will
have to hire porters to ferry our gear to the next open stretch of road. Once
there, we will have to hire one of the few trucks that are trapped in the no
man's land between landslides to drive us up valley.
It should be a hot and sweaty journey to Tibet. Let's
just hope that the monsoon rains are ending, allowing us to pass through Nepal
and begin the trek to base camp without having to battle any torrential
Earth Treks' Climbing Center
I just finished a radio chat with Elliot and the Class on
DC101. You'll never guess what he asked: "How do you take a dump up on
Everest?" Thus followed a keen discussion of the finer points of high
altitude crapping: from rainbow zippers, to frost bite to the liberal use of
drugs to cork things up. Sounds like a riveting topic for the next Everest best
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Shishapangma: Trekking to Base Camp
September 11, 2001
A half moon broke through the clouds scattering the rain
that has fallen all night. I crawled from my tent long before dawn. Rising
above our little camp, a single mountain poked through the clouds, its steep
north face fluted the summit ridge overhanging. Four blue sheep ran in front of
me climbing a grassy hill. My first morning in the mountains was magical.
Our trip so far had been a classic journey in the third
world. The Chinese embassy in Kathmandu
would only issue me a 30-day visa despite their usual practice of giving 65
days to expeditions. Landslides caused by the monsoon rains, the worst in 40
years, had torn apart the roads to Tibet. With the help of 16 porters,
we ferried the gear over the slide shuffling from bus to foot to truck to foot
We entered Tibet on September 9th, and the clock
started ticking. We have to be out of the country by October 8th; our fate
rests on the whims of the monsoon. If it clings to the mountains for much
longer, the south face of Shishapangma may not come into shape in time. At this
stage I need to push with prudence; racing to base camp at 17,400 feet could
actually set me back. I need to acclimatize using my hard earned experience to
dictate the pace.
On the night of the 9th, we slept at 11,000 feet. On the
morning of the 10th, we hiked to 13,300 feet. We'll spend 2 nights camping here
before pushing to base camp. Today, Ram and I will explore a side valley,
hoping to tag 15,000 feet or more.
The valley we are in is beautiful, one of my favorite in
the Himalayas. Teeming with wildlife inhabited
only by scattered families of summer yak herders, it is completely above tree
line. But unlike the valleys leading to Everest or Cho Oyu,
it is carpeted in flowers and grasses.
As we hiked in yesterday, two Koreans and an American
were descending from base camp. The American had been at base camp for 2 weeks.
It rained or snowed every day and rarely did his team see a peak. Suffering
from a chest infection, he is headed home. I hope as I write this that the clouds
continue to part. Three beautiful peaks are almost completely exposed and the
monsoon may be tiring.
Earth Treks' Climbing Center
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Shishapangma: Advanced Base Camp
September 17, 2001
Ram and I have pitched our tent beside a small lake at
about the same altitude as the summit of Cotopaxi,
19,350 feet, only 7,000 feet to go. Our journey to this point has been
On the 12th, we reached base camp, a beautiful meadow
beside two lakes. Base camp is near the backend of a horseshoe with
Shishapangma and a dozen other peaks forming the rim. On the 15th we shouldered
our daypacks and climbed a 19,500 foot unnamed peak. The views were spectacular
and the climbing fun; a twisted glacier led to a knife-edge ridge. We were able
to watch the southwest face of Shishapangma, trying to decide which routes seem
the safest. Neighboring peaks were avalanching every hour or so but the
southwesterly aspect of my face was catching so much sun as to appear pretty
secure. The avalanche signs were limited to some collapsed seracs down low, a
few crown lines showing the upper reaches of slabs that have run earlier, and a
few fans of debris at the base of the face. Unfortunately the most sign was on
the Loretan route with pillows of deep snow sitting above a band of seracs and
a series of crown lines spinning the couloir into sections.
I've since opted for the less direct but seemingly safer
British decent route. The first 4,500 feet of this follows a series of
ever-steepening snow slopes from 35 to 60 degrees. It exits onto the summit
ridge which climbs for nearly 2,500 feet in elevation to the top. My plan is to
blast up the route in one shot carrying a small day pack, two ice tools, a bivy
sack, a pot and stove, a hydration pack, six pickets, two ice screws, four
carabiners and a hundred meters of 5mm Titan cord. From the looks of it I'm
planning on an 11 to 14 hour ascent and a 6 to 8 hour descent including multiple
The first attempt will be on the night of the 18th, which
makes sense given the condition of the face, but with no moon, route finding
should be time-consuming. I'm also not as acclimated as I'd like having left Kathmandu on the 9th. If
it doesn't work out the first time, I still have two solid weeks. I'll also
have a better idea of where to go and what to expect. This climb promises to be
an adventure; expect an update in 2 or 3 days.
Earth Treks' Climbing Center
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Advanced Base Camp on Shishapangma
I've been debating strategy for days and have decided I'd
leave ABC at 3:30am and try to reach the summit before dark, a long (7000 total
feet) and necessarily rapid ascent. I'd bivy on the descent only if exhaustion
overtook me. Well it proved way too dark to pull that off. With no moon to
highlight the terrain, I was moving too slowly. In addition I could hear
spindrift roaring across the glacier's surface, and preferred to get hit by an
avalanche I could see rather than suddenly see a wall of white inches before it
struck. I was curled in my sleeping bag by 5:30am.
At 10:50am I set off again with a bigger pack, expecting
at least a few hours bivouacked on the col 4500 feet up the route. In the
daylight I made much better progress. Once on the glacier the route ascends 500
vertical feet pretty quickly. This leads to a 600 foot span of avalanche
debris, 30 degrees at the bottom but once you cross the bergschrund, the last
two thirds rear up to 50 degrees. Pinched by a rock outcrop the next section is
a 50-60 degree sheet of ice with some thin snow on either side.
About 700 feet up this couloirs I was traversing the ice,
it was bulletproof, crampon points just scraping and scratching. 5 to 10 swings
of each ice tool shattered the surface and I was only able to hook one or two
of the teeth on the picks. Three quarters of the way across the traverse my
right tool folded up on me. A bolt and nut that had sheared through had popped
out. The pick, now pivoting on one set of bolts, simply folded against the ice.
Things were desperate, a sudden move and I would go for the ride of my life.
Gingerly I reached for an ice screw sunk it deep into the ice and rigged the
first of six long rappels. Three hours later I was off the glacier.
This hill is proving a bit tough to climb, but I am
nowhere near done with it. My first choice threatens avalanche, my second
choice destroyed my ice tool, and my third choice may prove to be the less than
glorious romp on the British route nearly fixed with rope to the middle of the
face, yet offering a direct shot to the summit.
OK a day or two of rest and the moving of our camp is
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Sept. 23 (11:30 P.M. EDT USA)
Chris has reached the summit of Shishapangma! He called
from the summit at 11:30pm EST. Actually, he used his walkie-talkie to contact
Ram. Ram then contacted Earth Treks via satellite phone and held the
walkie-talkie to the phone. WOW! What a way to call the office!
Through a difficult connection, Earth Treks learned that
Chris is on the summit and feeling great! The weather is clear and he has an incredibly
beautiful view of all of the mountains throughout the land.
When Chris returns to camp he will be calling in his
journal and will have more information about his summit experience.
Be sure to check back! [ Play Video ]
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Another call came in:
Chris is now back in Advanced Base Camp after summiting
Shishapangma by the British route! He did the climb in 34 hours round trip,
taking almost the same amount of time to descend as ascend. Highlights included
lots of beautiful climbing on rock and snow, a stunning summit day with great weather
and views, and some interesting weather with clouds and lightning to add to the
challenge of descent back to advanced base camp.
Chris sounds great, saying he felt really strong and
healthy on the climb and was really looking forward to getting off the phone so
he could go to sleep! He is currently trying to gather yaks to begin his return
journey to base camp and on to Kathmandu and
is planning to write a full dispatch from there!
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Shishapangma: Solo on the South Face
The face loomed above, 7600 feet from top to bottom. I
could feel it, nagging at me, the anticipation keeping me awake, when I knew I
should be sleeping. All of my gear was packed, barely a dozen total pieces.
Yet, I reviewed each piece, rolling over in my sleeping bag to chuck aside a
piece of this, or tuck in a piece of that. Drink more. Calories? Never enough.
Checking the time: only 8 minutes have passed. Interminable this waiting.
I had a plan and didn't want to waver from it. Leave the
tent at 4 p.m. and wander slowly to the base of the glacier. From here I'd
control my urge to go too quickly. I'd stop at each "camp" if even
just for 15 minutes. The key was in the pacing: too fast and I'd burn myself
out, too slow and I'd run out of energy, water or daylight for the descent. To
go light and fast, climbing one of the world's tallest peaks in a single push,
was to maintain control. Lose control of the plan and you might lose control of
the situation. Above all else, it is a mental game. Discipline is the key to
At 3:40 p.m. I couldn't take it any longer. The
anticipation was eating me alive. I crawled from the tent, slung the small pack
over my shoulders and slowly walked toward the glacier. By dark (6:30), I was
on the face itself, sidestepping up the 40 degree initial slopes. As the slope
steepened, the snow began to harden. My crampons crunched on the frozen crust,
the rhythm of each step echoing off the fearsome, hanging seracs.
At 8 p.m. I crossed directly beneath a dozen tons of
hanging ice, the most dangerous section of the route. A week earlier I watched
this section avalanche, radioing over to another team, hoping they had slept
in. They never even heard it! I could feel the weight pressing on my shoulders.
I wanted to go faster, but couldn't. Not because I was pacing myself, but
because at 20,500 ft. things take time.
9:30 p.m.: It is snowing lightly. I'm concerned. This
whole route is an avalanche shoot, steep (45-80 degrees for more than 6500 ft)
and straight from top to bottom. Dave Bridges and Alex Lowe are entombed below
me. If the snow storm develops, I have to descend in it, no matter what. I'm
not carrying a sleeping bag or a tent. Above me, a few stars are shining. I lay
the decision on the stars. If they slip behind clouds I am going to descend. As
long as I can see them, the storm is not overhead.
11:30 p.m.: Flashes of lightning begin to shatter the
darkness. The range behind me is cloud choked. I'm sure that a storm is tearing
those mountains apart. But here on the edge of the Tibetan plateau, I can still
see stars above me. Shishapangma is the first, and in this narrow strip, the
only peak that rises this tall. I know that any storm that wants to include
Shishapangma within it, is going to have to be very powerful. This storm seems
to be stalled. It is strong enough to rise above the foothills of Nepal and claw
at the 23,000 foot peaks all around me. But it hasn't enough power to make that
last, desperate lunge onto these slopes. Only the luckiest of winds carry the
finest of snow flakes to dust the mountain and lay lightly on my gore-tex
September 24, 2001
4:30 a.m.: 7000 feet up the face and my legs are giving
out. The steep slopes, leading toward the top of the British Couloir, are
beginning to wear me down. I am battling with lactic acid. It's building up in
my calves. The constant repetitive motion of kicking each foot into the slope
has worn me down. At nearly 26,000 feet, I should be laying on my axe, sucking
in air, not arching my back and screaming from the pain. I want to be done, I
want to walk again, but in the dark I can barely see 100 feet. I wait for
another bolt of lightning. In the second that the mountain is turned shades of
flash bulb blue, I can see the final cleft in the rocks, the place where the
snow snakes its way towards the summit ridge. I slump on my ice axes. I have at
least three more hours to get there.
7:30 a.m.: I'm making the final push out of the couloir,
kind of walking. I'm at least standing straight up, pushing down with my feet
instead of kicking in. The sun is warming me up. The three Swiss climbers, who
left Camp 1 at 10 p.m., are coming down from the summit. It is great to see
anyone, better since these are friends, after nearly 15 hours alone. We pass in
seconds and I am alone again.
9:00 a.m.: The views are fantastic. To the north of the
airy summit, the Tibetan Plateau sweeps toward infinity. Mt. Kailas
and a thousand lakes glitter on this brown, dusty plain. But south, east and
west of me, hundreds of peaks slice through the clouds. From Everest to
Dhualagiri, I can see 7 other 8000 meter peaks. Here on the main summit of
Shishapangma, the only tracks are from those of us who have climbed the South
Face's British route: 9 from the Korean teams (including at least 3 Sherpas), 3
Swiss and myself. It's taken me 17 hours and 20 minutes to climb from ABC to
the summit: a single shot from top to bottom. It's a satisfying accomplishment
and a major contrast to my May 23rd summit day on Everest. I'm on the top, all
10:00 am: I'm thirsty; the sun's heat has pressed water
to the front of my needs. Earlier, at 2 a.m. or so, I threw up a liter or more
of water, dry heaving in the end. Now my water bladder, once filled with
Smartfuel, is empty. I pack it with snow, add two more flavor packets, and hope
my body heat will melt it. I start down the couloir. Where it steepens I turn
into the slope.
11:30 a.m.: Clouds swirl up the couloir. The only color
is white: snow or clouds. The light flattens. Without a shadow I can't see my
footprints from the night before. Somewhere, maybe just across the slope is
Camp 3. If I can get there, I can reach the top of the fixed ropes, a few
thousand feet of cord strung by the Koreans and an International team. Once I find
the ropes, I could rappel the route, ending this tiresome down climbing.
4:30 p.m.: I've criss-crossed the slope 7 times. I've
considered crawling into my emergency bivouac sack and waiting for another day.
I've radioed the Swiss asking for any landmark. I've down climbed and down
climbed, using internal fluids and muscle memory to gauge the steepness of the
slope. And I kept a mantra going, which blended with the fatigue, overcoming my
weaknesses and delivered me to Camp 3 after 5 hours of searching. "Descend,
5:00 p.m.: I'm clipping the rappel device to the rope,
ready for the first rappel. The light filtering through the cloud cover is
fading quickly. A snow flake settles onto my glove. In minutes the snow is
swirling around me. It storms for more than two hours. I stop looking up, sick
and tired of sliding snow hitting my face and pouring into my collar.
"Descend, always descend."
7:00 p.m.: I see my first star and realize the snow has
stopped. I'm below Camp 2 now, descending into the thickening air of 23,000
then 22,000 feet. Slowly the mountains behind me open up. I can see the glow of
flashlights inside the tents at Advanced Base Camp. I'd be there, but for 5
hours stolen by the white out in the middle of my day.
10:00 p.m.: I unclip from the last of the ropes. The
rappelling is done. A gently sloping glacier separates me from the moraine. I
unload my body of the gear needed for the vertical world (harness, carabiners,
even one of my ice axes) and stuff these onto the pack. Like following a sea
voyage, the first few steps on solid ground are disorienting. 40 minutes later
I ease myself into the tent. It's been a long 34 hours, but the endorphins are
Climbing Shishapangma, viewed with a few days' reflection,
is a real highlight in my climbing career. There is such a simplicity, a raw
athletic beauty, inherent in climbing such an imposing face so quickly and
alone. I deliberately set off on this climb alone, hoping that it would starkly
contrast with my last two seasons on Everest. The goal wasn't to diminish
Everest (I value the partnerships and the challenge inherent in guiding Everest
so much and feel that the May '01 expedition demanded so much more of my
talents, abilities and strengths than this climb has. I know I'm going back to
Everest in a few years, to once again test that part of my skill base). The
goal was simply to make sure I still got the juice needed to let 'er rip.
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