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