Earlier this fall, Feathered Friends Ambassadors Mark Pugliese and Nik Mirhashemi journeyed to the remote Rolwaling Valley in the Himalayas in pursuit of big mountains and new routes. Words by Mark Pugliese. Pictures by Nik Mirhashemi and Mark Pugliese.
I shook violently with cold. My hands felt like pieces of wood. My body was attempting to pump what felt like molasses though my veins. I was standing under a rock outcropping at 6,100 meters on the West Face of Chugimago in the Rolwaling Valley of Nepal. As I swung my hands side to side to get the blood flow going, I watched the alpenglow of the setting Himalayan sun engulf the 7,000 meter peaks around me and burst into brilliant orange and red flames. It was beautiful and terrifying all at once. I knew the light would be gone soon, and I would be left with only the dull glow of my headlamp. I thought my partner had reached the ridge, but I wasn’t sure. I drew within myself in that lonely space beneath the rock, accepted and embraced my fear, and prepared to move upwards. Time to harden up.
This trip began nearly a year before that moment standing in the fading sunlight of those peaks. My good friend Nik Mirhashemi and I had committed to doing our first expedition to the Himalaya, and with that came the stress of a lifetime. I had always wondered how these massive expeditions get started… How do you find the peak you want to climb? How do you arrange transportation? Permits? Food? This was all a mystery to us, and there was only one way to solve it…start asking.
First, we figured out what type of climbing we wanted to do – alpine mixed climbing. From there we were able to identify certain areas of the mountain range that provided that specific type of climbing. Then began the battle of finding a peak that had not only the elevation and climbing style we sought, but also one that was realistic to access. The problem we kept running into was closed peaks and areas whose access was limited for religious or financial reasons. When you take on a challenge like this, you quickly learn to appreciate the amount of effort it takes to organize all of these logistics. You also become beta-hungry.
We sent messages all over to people who we hoped would have some contact in a distant land who could help us decipher whether the peak we wanted to climb was even possible to get to. One of those people was Kyle Dempster. At one point, we thought we were going to go to the Tian Shan in China. Kyle was an enormous help, sending google earth images, maps, and photos. Once we decided on the Rolwaling Valley of Nepal insteas, Kyle sent us an email wishing us luck and sharing his seemingly endless stoke. The last line of his email read “HAVE A FUCKING BLAST IN NEPAL!” Before Nik and I finished up our summer season of guiding in the North Cascades, the news of Kyle reached us. We didn’t know him well, but we felt crushed by the loss, as many in the climbing community did. It also scared us half to death. The month before we were set to leave on the biggest expedition of our lives, two of the greatest climbers in the world go missing… Nik and I discussed it a lot, coming to the conclusion that the looming feeling we both felt before this trip was best summed up in one word: Ominous.
The month before we left, we each spent time at home visiting family and friends. It felt different than any other expedition I had been on. People really make an effort to come see you…to wish you well…to make promises of what the future will hold upon your return. It’s a strange feeling going on a trip like this…you wonder if this is the last time your going to drive your car or see your parents. It was a battle, at least for me, between being stoked on the trip and being terrified that it would be my last. Nonetheless, Nik and I were on the same page; let’s not only have a great trip, but also board the plane at the end to come home to our friends and family.
When we arrived it really felt like a culmination of a years worth of work and stress. The hard part was over and now we could just enjoy the experience. Kathmandu was crazy, to say the least. It felt like we were now experiencing what so many climbers visiting the region before us had experienced. We stayed in the city for four days and got to know the area a bit. Our logistics coordinator, Mingma Gyalje of Dreamers Destination, was incredibly helpful; even arranging transportation and a guide for us to go sport climbing outside Kathmandu.
After our stay in Kathmandu, we set out toward the Rolwaling Valley. After a 10 hour 4X4 ride we continued on foot from the small village of Gongar. Walking through the dense jungle felt like being unleashed. We had so much pent up energy from the past year of preparation that we found ourselves running up the trail with excitement. The higher we got, the more stoked we felt. All of the nervousness and anxiety associated with the ominous feeling we had before the trip was gone…all we felt was energy and enthusiasm.
Then we saw the mountains for the first time.
7,000m peaks shot up through the dense foliage with enormous white snow flutings stretching up thousands of feet into the sky. We were giddy with excitement. Four days later we were at base camp – the village of Na. With only 56 people that live in the entire valley, Na is not only the highest, but also one of the smallest villages. Directly out of the village we could see some of our proposed objectives. There aren’t really any pictures you can take or words you can use to really capture how big these peaks are. They dwarf even the largest peaks I had seen in the past with both their overall elevation and sheer vertical relief. Sleeping next to our Sherpa host’s house, we settled in for the next three weeks.
We got to work immediately, starting to take acclimatization hikes up to the high passes and meadows out of the valley. We learned to bring our rock shoes everywhere, as the bouldering was actually quite good (and the location not half bad either).
The first peak we set our eyes on was later identified as “Norbu Peak,” which sat at about 5635m. We established a new line on the peak that was just what we needed. Fun and interesting mixed climbing but never more than we could handle for our first time mixed climbing at those elevations. We belly flopped onto the summit that was the size of a trash can lid, and then retraced our route back to our advanced base camp. We named the route “Wrong Way Bud” (5.6, M4, 500m) because we accidentally took a bit of a detour on the route that culminated in a dead end and a rappel. After the climb we descended all the way back to Na to rest and recuperate. This acclimatization strategy worked excellently. On most of our previous guided trips we would slowly move up the mountain and sleep at higher and higher elevations until we were within striking distance of the summit. But here in the Himalaya, however, moving light and fast allowed us to make it all the way back down to 4100m and completely recover before going for our next objective.
The second peak we had our eye on was a sub-peak of our main objective, Chugimago North (5945m). This climb really felt like an adventure. Just getting to the base of the glacier was difficult and demanding. Hours of talus and steep vegetated slopes put us at a perfect advanced base camp with excellent access to the glacier below the route. The climb went well, beautiful snow and ice couloirs lead to some loose snow and rock pitches above, eventually reaching the summit ridge. We were not able to push the route to the true South summit of the peak because of a wildly overhanging cornice that blocked a traverse from the North summit. We chose to call the North summit the top our our route, “Witness the Sickness” (M4, AI4, 75 Deg, 500m). The descent was fairly straight forward, following the north ridge of the peak down to a notch which put us on top of an 800ft wall just as the sun was setting. We rapped the wall and arrived back at camp late that night. Success.
Our third and final climb was the largest and most demanding of the climbs. The West Face of Chugimago had been climbed twice previously, but it appeared to still have potential for a new line. After our approach day full of crossing massive talus slopes and treacherous boulder fields, we arrived on the Ya Lung Glacier at the base of the impressive West Face. Our line looked to be in good condition, so at 3:30 the next morning we woke up and began climbing. This was by far the best climbing we found on the trip. Fun M4ish terrain down low led to a huge section of snow flutings that we were able to solo to the base of the final rock buttress. Climbing through the buttress was dreamy, with excellent mixed pitches up to M6 and good solid neve in between that had us hooting and hollering as we pulled the moves. As the sun set, I found myself under that rock outcropping near the summit ridge.
Nik was battling the last pitch of the wall and I was in my pain cave. Fear started to sink in as the sun set, and I was left wondering when we would be able to stop and bivy. The cold bit at my fingertips as I pulled the anchor and began to climb. Luckily, we had reached the ridge and found that a nice bivy spot at 6,100m was just another pitch above. We flattened out a platform and settled in for the long Himalayan night.
We chose to go light on this route, bringing only a tent, stove, sleeping pads, puffy pants, and our Feathered Friends parkas to get us through the night. It was great not having the weight of sleeping bags on us as we climbed, but we paid for it that night. It was cold and miserable in that little tent. Trying to sleep at the elevation equivalent of the summit of Denali with no sleeping bag proved difficult to say the least. We shivered for 11 hours before the sun rose that next morning. We quickly packed up our camp and continued climbing for 4 more pitches before we crested the ridge and stood on the summit.
What an incredible feeling…standing on top of over a year’s worth of work felt unreal. Looking around at the view was absolutely stunning. Without a single cloud in the sky or a lick of wind on the air, we could see north to Tibet, China, the summit of Everest, and then clear south to India. This was worth the struggle. This was worth the stress. This was worth the uncertainty. I’ve never felt more alive. We called our route “Mixed Emotions” (M6, AI5, 80 Deg, 900m) because of the emotional rollercoaster we endured before the trip. In the end, though, it felt good. It didn’t feel like we had gotten away with anything. We climbed smart and used our skill and knowledge to pull off the biggest objective either of us had ever done.
After descending the face that day we were back in Na, drinking Chang and laughing about the experience. At that moment I decided that I was done with the trip. I had gotten what I came for and more. I was ready to tell my friends and family that we were safe, and we were coming home. Nik was supportive of the decision and was excited to tell his family the same. That’s what a partnership is about…sticking together and supporting your partner through their highs and lows, and helping them make literal life-changing decisions. That’s why I climb with Nik, because we have that mutual respect for each other. I know he will support me and help me through those hard decisions just as I do for him.
So…Will I climb new routes in the Himalaya again? I’m not sure. Maybe.
The stress surrounding the trip was a lot to handle, but what we gained from the experience is hard to measure. I know one thing…I am a better person today because of this trip. Seeing a new part of the world, meeting all those new people, and putting myself in the harshest environment I’ve ever been in has definitely improved me as a human being. Now I see why Kyle was so addicted to these trips; they force you to grow in a way nothing else in your life can. I learned more about myself in two days than the previous 26 years of my life had taught me. Perhaps what felt so ominous about this trip was not going into unknown territory to establish unknown routes, but rather going into the unknown of myself and discovering what’s truly there.
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