Climbing Cholatse South, West Ridge – 6,440 m / 21,128 ft
Setting up Base Camp
Cholatse is one of the most spectacular mountains in the Khumbu valley and one which I always wanted to climb. Naren, myself, and some trekking clients spent two weeks acclimatizing in the Khumbu valley and across the Cho La Pass before reaching our site for Base Camp on 8th November 2019. We set up Base Camp in a beautiful Yak meadow at 4,700 m close to a water source with amazing views of the Gokyo valley and the south-west face of Cholatse. That evening we made plans for our summit attempt. The next day, we did an acclimatisation walk up to crampon point just at the start of the glacier. While we moved higher on the bolder moraine, we took great care as the rock was loose and sharp in places. There was not much of a track to get to crampon point, so we left some large stones as markers in order to find our way on our summit attempt. We returned to our base camp that afternoon for a lovely dinner and spent the evening preparing our gear as we planned to leave for Camp 1 the next day.
Beautiful camp 1
On 10th November, we got up early to make final preparations for our journey up to Camp 1 at 5,600 m. Jangbu Sherpa and Pasang Sherpa joined us that morning. As the weather looked good for the next few days, we were very excited to be moving up higher on the mountain. When we got closer to crampon point, the Sherpas pulled out a hip flask of whiskey and told me we would have a little tipple if the weather got too cold at camp 1.
Our bags were pretty heavy as we had to take everything from Base Camp to Camp 1. Once on the glacier, we started moving up the gradual slope and traversed to the right to avoid serac fall from the ridge above. Much care was needed and good footwork on the lower parts of the glacier. We stuck to the rocks on the cliff side but had to be careful as there were some huge crevasses around. As we moved closer to the mountain, we got some beautiful views of the long South West ridge. Once past the heavily crevassed part of the glacier, we moved left again and travelled very quickly under the avalanche prone areas until we came to the steep snow arete. We were relieved to be past the dangers of the lower part of the glacier. Now, the hard climbing began.
The snow arete was approximately a 70-degree angle. We moved quickly up the arete as the snow and ice conditions were good. Our backpacks were heavy, but we knew once on top of the arete we would reach Camp 1 on a small icy col at 5,600 m. We would set up camp 1, eat, drink and prepare to leave for our summit push that night with lighter packs. After we set up the camp and started melting snow, we had a couple of hours to relax before sunset. It was one of the most beautiful camps I have slept at. There were incredible views of Tebouche, the Gokyo valley, Cho Oyu, and other Himalayan peaks. We had a perfect view of the first major obstacle of our summit push, i.e. a large rock tower that would lead us to the South West ridge. Once the sun set, it quickly became very cold, so we got into our tent, cooked and ate some food and listened to Bob Marley before going to sleep.
Leaving Camp 1 at 3.00 am (11th November), we started to tackle the rock tower. There was some old fixed line in one section on the left of the rock tower. Having looked at this route the previous afternoon, we decided it would be better to climb the tower, alpine style. We moved quickly on the mixed terrain of ice, snow and rock until we came to the top of the tower. We moved onto the right side just below the ridge line and started traversing along the loose rock. There were huge drops just below us on the right and the climbing was difficult. We tried to find good placements for our crampons and not let any loose rocks fall on each other. We moved quickly, keeping warm through this rocky section. However, we were surprised that we had not gained much height by the time we got back onto the snow and ice at the top the ridge. The sun was starting to come up which meant we would get warm.
As we moved higher along the snow and ice ridge, we came to a huge serac hanging over our planned route. We decided to take a small rest here, drink some water and then start moving as quickly as possible underneath the serac and through the huge blocks of ice that had fallen previously.
As we travelled below the serac, we were stopped in our tracks just to the left of it by a large ice wall. There was a huge deep crevasse below us, part of the serac hanging above and ahead of us was one of the more technically challenging and difficult parts of the climb. We were standing on a narrow ledge while Pasang went ahead and lead the few pitches to climb the ice wall. It was thick blue ice which meant we had to work extra hard with our crampons and ice axes to stay on the ice wall and not have a fall. Although my calves and arms were burning as I climbed higher, I was enjoying this beautiful part of the climb. I focused on my technique, trying to save energy and move quickly, while ignoring the serac above and the crevasse below.
Once we got past the Ice wall, there was still lots of climbing to get back onto the summit ridge. There were some narrow traverses on the snow and rock with very steep ice climbing before we were back on the South West ridge. We were rewarded with spectacular views or Everest, Lhotse, Nuptse, Makalu, Ama Dablam, Cho Oyu, Pumori and many more Himalayan peaks. We could see there was still a lot of climbing ahead of us to get to the summit. The wind had picked up as we progressed along the knife edge ridge. We could see the summit was getting closer but had to use all our concentration to place one foot in front of the other. It was very exposed with 2,000 m drops on either side of us and only room for placing one foot at a time. In some places, we had to crawl crab-style on hands and feet on the slope below the ridge as it was too narrow to walk on. As much as I wanted to take out take out my camera and Go Pro, I thought it best to focus on the climbing on this narrow and final section of the climb.
An hour or so later (10.00 am), we were standing on the flat summit plateau. We had one last obstacle to climb to get to the highest point. Jangbu and Pasang had already been on the summit and waited on the plateau for us to take some photos and celebrate. Naren and I made the short climb up the icy pyramid to finally reach the top of Cholatse (6,440 m). It was one of the narrowest summits I have been on with a huge drop to the right of us. It was very windy and cold standing on the summit. We took a few photos and got back down to the plateau just below the summit. From here we had a small celebration, some more photos and got ready for the descent. I was still in a bit of a daze on the summit plateau. We had climbed very quickly without many breaks. We knew it was going to be a difficult descent. I had one energy gel that I had kept and thought it best to take it before we started to descend.
We retraced our steps along the ridge, using arm wraps where we could and abseiling in the steeper sections. As we descended, the wind died down. However, the sun was getting pretty hot and draining our remaining energy. We took one small break before the large ice wall as this was the most difficult, dangerous and technical section of the climb. Once down the wall, we moved quickly past the serac knowing that relative safety was just below. Lower on the ridge, we could make out our Camp 1 and Base Camp, but they seemed so far away. Once back onto the tricky rock section of the first part of the ridge, I knew we were getting close to Camp 1.
We were all delighted to reach Camp 1 at 3.00 pm. After a short break, some drinks and snacks, it was time to pack up our camp and make our way down towards Base Camp. I was feeling pretty tired but knew we would be more comfortable at Base Camp. So, I kept saying to myself to push on to get there – that it will be worth it. As I was tired, I was a little worried about travelling on the glacier in the avalanche prone areas during the afternoon with more chance of avalanches. However, it was the correct decision and an hour or so later, we were back on the moraine. We took our crampons off in the dark. We arrived at Base Camp at 7.00 pm.
Cholatse is one of the hidden gems of the Khumbu valley. It was a mountain I had been thinking about since I had seen it so many times trekking in the Khumbu. People say there are too many climbers in Nepal. But we had Cholatse to ourselves. I will never forget climbing the summit ridge. I thank, Naren, Jangbu and Pasang and all the team for their hard work in making the climb possible and keeping me safe.