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The Marolts and friends are starting to make skiing 7000 meter peaks seem routine.  

Their latest trip takes us to Noijin Kangsang, a 7,206 m (23,642 ft.) heap of ice 187 km SE of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet.  This year’s group included Mike and Steve Marolt, previous Marolt trip veterans John Callahan and Dr. Jon Gibans and newbies Mike Maple and Ham Mehlman.  All Except Ham are Aspenites; Ham is an east coast lowlander.  We left Aspen on April 24.  The group enjoyed some culture touring the Potala Palace in Lhasa.  Lobsang, our TMA liaison, provided the audio in some mixture of Tibetan and pigeon English.  About all we understood was that there is over $100 million of gold decor in the various shrines, chapels and tombs housed in the 1000 plus rooms of the structure, perhaps enough gold to buy a condo at the base of lift 1A.  We were fortunate even to have visas to enter Lhasa given the unrest from the 50th anniversary of the Dalai Lama’s exit from Lhasa.  As it was, Lhasa was an armed police camp with machine gun toting military personnel atop many buildings.  There were few tourists although the very sociable Gibans ran into a physical therapist he knew from Boulder.  

(Photo Nichin Kangsar  – Getting culture at Potala Place – M. Marolt) 

Noijin Kangsang is the most accessible major Himalayan peak. The newly paved Nagartse-Gyantse highway, smooth as the proverbial “silk road,” runs within 5 km of base camp and now reduces drive time from Lhasa to around 3 hours. The peak is the tallest in the Karo-La group.  It was first summitted in 1986 by a Chinese-Tibetan team via the south face and SW ridge.  It is unknown whether anyone has skied the peak before.  It did not appear that any group, with or without skis, had visited the peak in the last several years.  One of the great bonuses about the expedition is that we had the mountain to ourselves, an increasingly rare occurrence in the Himalaya.  This was the second consecutive year in that the Marolts et al. claimed a peak for themselves.  Last year it was 6400 m (21,000 ft.) Corrapuna in Peru.  

We established base camp below the Kampu Monastery at the opening to the Ngangyang valley and exchanged greetings with the curious Lama family and their sheep.   After two days of acclimation at 5,000m (16,400 ft.) we hoofed our way 7km along the riverbed and moraine to advanced base camp (ABC) at 5,330m (17,500 ft.) on the edge of a small glacial lake surrounded by a dramatic box canyon. The 5,000 ft. sheer Northeast wall of Noijin Kangsang rose from the far side of the lake.

(Photo Nichin Kangsar – Posing before the beast at ABC – S. Marolt)

The rapid elevation gain finally claimed me, the token east coast lowlander, as its first victim.  An O2 saturation reading of 58 is not something to covet.  Combined with difficulty drinking, it made for an unpleasant night and a quick return for me to base camp and onto the comforts of The Himalayan Hotel in Lhasa. 

From ABC, the route ascended a fairly steep scree field to a 45 degree snowfield. Early on we decided to skip the customary camp 2 at 6,340m (20,800 ft.) and climb alpine style from 5,910m (19,400 ft.), about a 1280 m (4,200 ft.) rise to summit.  The route took us up the East Ridge that is advertised to have few objective dangers and little technical challenge – a claim that vastly understated the crevassing exposed in a low snow year such as this one.  

On May 2 the rest of the group except Maple (an acute case of food poisoning) hauled gear up to high camp at 5,910m (19,400 ft.) and returned to ABC. We tested our ski legs, clattering from high camp down the snowfield below before returning to ABC for two days rest. 

On May 5 the whole team moved to high camp for the night and some route finding. From high camp we moved about 250 ft. down a shale knife-edge and then gained 750 ft before hitting the snowline.  From there we scouted to the tope of the snow face at 6,340m (20,800 ft.), a consistent 40 degree slope.  The surface here was mostly glacial ice and extremely hard and wind scoured.  

On May 6 we rested at ABC while the wind had fun with our high camp.  Fortunately, the Nemo tents survived despite some severed guidelines.  Unfortunately, the wind also scoured what new snow we had received from the surface and our only hope for a few good turns. 

We returned to high camp for good on May 8. 

May 9 was summit day.  Left at 4:00 am with Mike grousing about his bro oversleeping.  Fairly straightforward to the ridge at 6400m (21,000 ft.). The views were spectacular.  Below to the east lay our tiny glacial lake with the enormous and sacred Yanzhog Yumco Lake in the distance.  To the south the Himalaya stretched before us as far as the eye could see.  Like most days we experienced only intermittent clouds.  However, it was “butt-ass cold” on the climb in our ski gear, with a biting and persistent wind.  

(Photo – Nichin Kangsar – Maple feeling it on the summit bid – M. Marolt)

(Photo – Nichin Kangsar – A little too close for comfort? – S. Marolt) 

Once on the ridge, with 760 m (2500 ft.) left above us, summiting looked like “a slam dunk.” But we quickly bogged down in a morass of crevasses, some of them “Himalayan sized.”  This was pretty unexpected based on reports from previous expeditions and likely is the result of a low snow year in the area.  With 5 of us hooked into one rope we crisscrossed the face to navigate a route.  At 7,010m (23,000 ft.) we found ourselves at the base of the summit pyramid with about 190 m (640 ft.) vertical left to climb.  A large bergschrund blocked our most direct route.  Above us hung some wind-loaded cornices and the snow was hollow on ice.  Callahan said he was uncomfortable with the conditions and decided to wait in a safe zone.  At 7,090m (23,261 ft.) on Steve’s altimeter, the rest of us decided to call it a mountain.   It was 2:00 pm, past our predetermined turnaround time.  Clouds had suddenly come in putting us in a white out for a few minutes and exacerbating the cold and wind.   

We clicked in our skis and followed the wands down to the ridge.  The terrain descended in a series of steps to the ridge.  Some of the pitches approached 50 degrees.  Snow conditions were generally deplorable. Maple dubbed the skiing “Tibetan corduroy, ” a generous euphemism for corrugated boiler-plate.   White out chased us down the slope but for the most part we maintained visibility. On the face above high camp the surface smoothed out some but was still generally glacial ice.  At 40 plus degrees, you did not want to fall. We skied continuously from our high point to the bottom of the snow line just above high camp.  We then hiked with gear from high camp to ABC. 

(Photo –  Mike Marolt tames Tibetan Corduroy above high camp – M. Maple)

(Photo – Ninchin Kangs – Gibans circumvents the abyss – J. Gibans)

(Photo – “Tibetan Corduroy” – M. Marolt) 

We returned to Lhasa the next day, May 10 and to Aspen May 13.  Could have shaved 2 days off the trip but as it was we traveled Aspen to Aspen in 20 days, 12 days on a 7000m mountain.  

All in all the Marolts made this 7000m peak trip seem routine.  For Mike and Steve Marolt Noijin Kangsang is their 6th trip each skiing from above 7000m; 3rd for Callahan; 2nd for Gibans and 1st for Maple.

We’ll see how routine next year’s trip to Manaslu shapes up.

- Ham Mehlman





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