Yet somehow, miraculously, my body pushes on, taking it up the snow pitch as an incredibly icy wind throws spindrift into my face.
It has been 12 days since we set out on the expedition to climb a previously unclimbed peak and like most adventures it has not been without challenges and obstacles. In fact, it has been a true emotional rollercoaster, presenting many times where we thought the expedition may be over before it even began, shattering our dream to be the first people to ever climb Nar Phu Peak a 5930m Himalayan mountain in the Nar Phu valley region of Nepal.
But that’s what climbing an unclimbed peak is all about – the unknown.
In a world that is overly explored it is difficult to stand on part of its landscape where no one has before and this has always held a fascination with me. I’ve never been that interested in climbing the highest mountains or the most well known to be honest and even in the UK I try to get off the beaten track aiming for the quieter peaks, exploring the wilds that surround them. This is what truly drew me to the unclimbed peak expedition, whilst also ticking off one of my dream destinations – Nepal.
Then came the change in itinerary due to the 5ft of snow that was still on the high pass, making it impossible to get from Naar Village to the Kang La where we would drop down 100m to our Base Camp. We were having to continue on the Annapurna circuit for 3 days longer rather than going through the 'Lost Valleys' and though we weren’t looking forward to experiencing the commercial bustle of this route it was actually pretty quiet due to it being the end of trekking season and didn’t feel ‘overcrowded’ at all. I was also pretty gutted that we would not be passing the Tibetan village of Naar as I was looking forward to experiencing the culture and meeting the habitants of this isolated village nestled High in the Lost Valleys. Fortunately this wasn’t the end of the world as we ended up Staying in the beautiful Tibetan village of Lower Pisang with the village of Upper Pisang, complete with its typical Tibetan buildings built in to the hillside and the view of the south face of Pisang Peak peeping behind it.
As is often the case with expeditions, after a while you lose track of time and what day it is.
One thing that always remained in my mind was that soon it would be Saturday and Saturday was summit day. At this point we still hadn’t got a glimpse of this peak that we were to attempt to climb. As we made our way up to our camp we were welcomed by a snow-capped peak peeping out behind the surrounding ridges. This was our first proper sighting of Chulu Central, part of the Chulu range that lay to the East of Nar Phu Peak, so we knew that we were getting ever closer to our goal.
This camp offered some great view across to the Annapurnas and sat on a plateau that also had a set of goal posts. I can only assume this is the pitch of the infamous Ngawal FC and what a place to play a game of footy! Unfortunately for us, no one had a ball!
As we crested the ridge we were brought to a vast area where there were the most unusual rock formations that seemed very alien to the surrounding landscapes. It felt almost lunar and it was only when I noticed Lammergeyer and vultures circling overhead that my attention was taken away from them. Continuing on, with great views of the Chulus and its waterfall that was partially frozen, we eventually came to our intermediate camp nestled amongst the rocky ridgelines with the most spectacular view of the Annapurnas, right there in front of us like they were on stage and we were its audience. As we arrived early afternoon we had a few hours to relax, sort kit and take it all in before the sun dropped behind the high peaks bringing darkness and sub-zero temperatures in minutes. And all by 3.30pm!
At this camp we were definitely in Yak country and it was remarkable to watch a huge herd of them descend the neighbouring ridge, dropping down towards the Yak Herder’s Bothy. They truly are magnificent animals and it’s only when you get up close to them (or in our case when they storm your campsite) that you can truly appreciate how big they are. How intimidating too, especially when they start fighting with each other! Needless to say we all stayed well back and appreciated them from a safe distance!
To the north of our camp was the Kang La Pass, complete with its steep scree field that most people descend by (there is even a sign in Ngawal village stating that you should go anticlockwise thus descending from Kang La to the village). Due to us not being able to get to the Kang La from the west we had to ascend 1000m up the scree field complete with zigzag after zigzag until we reached the pass. That was one tough day with my head pounding as we covered the climb from 4320m to 5320m, eventually getting to the pass where we were met with a white wonderland. The whole of the area north of the pass was covered in deep snow and had an incredible backdrop of loads of snow-capped peaks spreading for miles into Tibet. It was truly spectacular, a real jaw dropping moment!
Base Camp was in the most amazing location, absolutely stunning and it was here we got our first real view of our peak and it was incredible! Fortunately for us, we had two rest days following our arrival to Base Camp that allowed us to rest, sort kit and acclimatise. We also spent some time practising rope skills and crampon work to ensure we were all read to go for summit day on the Saturday. On the second rest day our Sherpa mountain & climbing guides headed over to the glacier at the foot of Nar Phu Peak to recce this part of the area and spy a possible route up to the peak.
Where we were positioned at Base Camp we had a good view of the south easT face that was a mix of steep rock and ice wall, also featuring a near vertical gully thaT led up to a false summit that slightly blocked the view of the true summit. You could just20about make out the rock pulpit of the summit of Nar Phu peeping out from behind it but as this was not a possible route up they would need to see if there was an access point alonGside the hanging glacier that could lead up and effectively help us ascend the west face of the peak which couldn’t be seen from our position.
This is very bad news was the general consensus and as we had no radio communication with them it would be about 2 hrs before they got back to camp to confirm that the reason they had not looked further was that there was no possible route up this mountain, regardless of whether you approached from the east, south east or west – the snow was just too deep. This was a blow, a very big blow. We were here at Base Camp after days of trekking to get here and we had our first real view of this mountain that for the past year life had been focused on, constantly daydreaming about, the mountain that was always on my mind.
We were here, ready but we were not going to be able to even attempt the mountain a dream of standing on a landscape where no one else had before swiftly drifting away, like spindrift off a peak.
I came out of my tent and joined a couple of the other expedition members and we sat there and chatted about the situation. Then we laughed and joked and my spirit began to lift some more for it is in situations like this that people really come together. Looking out to the awesome scene that surrounded us this really wasn’t a bad place to feel a little disappointed and indeed as one of the expedition members said ‘there are worse places to be right now.’ And he was right.
Well, it turns out that although they had all returned safely the thumbs up was in relation to something else. Apparently the reason why they didn’t go further is that they could see a snow pitch to the right of the hanging glacier that led right up to the plateau at the top which would then meet the slope that would be the ascent route we would take right up to the summit.
And just like that it was back on. The Unclimbed Peak Expedition was back on!
What an emotional rollercoaster! And with that the mind shifted from one format to another as we all headed back to our tents to sort out kit for the following morning, for at 3am we would be getting up to set out for the summit of Nar Phu Peak!
As we continued we were continuously met by snow wall after snow wall, each steeper in gradient and each with a deceptive plateau which always led us to think the next one would be the summit. With fixed ropes we continued up a snow wall with an 80% gradient, suddenly hit by an icy blast of wind bringing the temperature down to -45. It was cold and it was extremely tough going but we all fought on putting each crampon step in front of the other whilst trying to find purchase with the ice axe.
Hours flew by and before we knew it was nearly 2pm. As we reached the top of a yet another steep snow wall we hit yet another plateau only to be met by a collapsed crevasse with a snow bridge across it. I was absolutely devoid of any energy at this point and I sat down on my daysack looking up to see a bit of the rocky summit peaking behind. It was so close but as I looked over to the snow bridge I feared we would not be able to go on due us not knowing how stable it was.
100m from the summit. That’s all it was yet once again we were facing another obstacle that could put an end to the dream.
We all looked at each other and then at Pasang Sherpa who advised they had assessed the situation and it was safe for safe for Dorjee Sherpa to recce the route to see if the Last 100m was safe aNd possible to climb. With baited breath, we all watched as Dorjee climbed quickly over the snOw bridge and up the wall before disappearing behind its ridge. Before long he was back at the top and began descending whilst fixing ropes with snow stakes, confirming that there was a doable route up to the summit.
Once again we set off up the challenging snow pitch whilst being hit across the face with icy blasts of spindrift and all I can remember thinking is ‘just keep goIng’. With each step carefully placed and each placement of the ice axe carefully thought out, it was not long before I came to the top of the wall and my eyes peered above it.
There, only a few metres away, was the rock pulpit of the summit.
The next day we descended the Kang La Pass and trekked to the campsite we had stayed 5 nights prior. Here we talked about summit day, the achievement and showed our gratitude to the Sherpas, Porters and Cook for all their hard work and support on the trek. There is no way we could have done it without them.
To save us having to walk all the way back to where we had started Expedition Wise Ltd had organised a helicopter to fly us back to Pokhara where we would then get the winged flight to Kathmandu. I am not going to lie, this was awesome and we all felt very cool running toward the chopper, jumping in and waving goodbye to the Sherpas and Porters as we took off, flying amongst the mountains and over the route we had trekked in on.
After more free time, shopping and celebratory meals at the Third Eye & Rum Doodle Restaurants it was soon time to set off back home.
Beyond the Mountain
I am so thankful for this experience that will no doubt stay with me for life but above all I remain humbled by it. Humbled by the beauty of the natural world experienced along the way, by the mountain for allowing us to reach her mighty summit and descend safely, and by the people of Nepal for the welcoming by the eyes where words were not needed.
And not forgetting life’s journeys, for ours are the journeys thaT take us to the unknown.
PC: (Group ascending snow pitch) Expedition Wise Ltd.
PC: Summit photo taken by Pasang Sherpa (HimEx)
The Unclimbed Peak Expedition was organised by Expedition Wise Ltd