Shishapangma is the highest peak entirely in Chinese territory, yet, strangely, it is the nearest eight-thousand to Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, and the only one visible from the town itself. It was the last of the fourteen to be climbed, a result of travel restrictions imposed in Tibet during the ‘fifties’. On the first ascent in 1964, ten Chinese climbers led by Hsu Ching reached the summit by the North- West Face and North Ridge. This may seem a large summit team, until you consider that there were 206 expedition members in all, including scientists and base camp staff! Doors were not opened to non- Chinese parties until 1980 but in that year and 1981 another five ascents were completed, all of them following more or less the original route. it remains a popular expedition, with a high success rate, up what is probably the easiest eight- thousand. The Tibetan name Shishapangma translates as ‘the range (Shisha) above the grassy plain’, which is exactly how it looks when approached from the north. Part of this peak’s attraction is its accessibility: it is possible to drive with jeeps and Lorries to base camp at 5000m and from there yaks can be used to ferry loads right up to 5800m. Cho Oyu, a few hours’ drive south of Tingri, is similarly convenient and for this reason many expeditions to Tibet choose to climb both of these mountains in the same season. Once acclimatized on Cho-Oyu, it is not unknown to spend less than a week on Shishapangma and still manage an ascent.
The South Face is steep and not quite so accessible, though by most peaks’ standards the approach is short and kind. Traveling from Friendship Bridge on the Nepalese frontier, Nyalam is the first settlement on the Tibetan plateau that one reaches after a five – hour drive. It is from this dreary, dusty village, reminiscent of Spaghetti Westerns, that one starts the three- day walk up the Nyanang Phu Chu. The valley leads to a grassy base camp site at the far end of a boulder- strewn plateau above the north bank of the Nyanang Phu Glacier and directly opposite Pemthang Karpo Ri (6830m), one of the fine peaks on the Nepalese frontier. One advantage of climbing on this side of the mountain is that, instead of driving straight to 5000m, one starts walking in from around 3800m with a better chance to acclimatize. This was the approach followed on the sixth ascent of Shishapangma in 1982. The party organized by Nick Prescott was the first to climb the mountain in pure alpine- style, tackling a face which had only before been glimpsed from across the frontier, in Langtang. Before setting foot on Shishapangma the three lead climbers, Doug Scott, Alex MacIntyre and Roger Baxter-Jones, made the first ascent over three days of Pungpa Ri, 7,445m by its south-west couloirs ridge (45degree ice and grade IV), cannily acclimatizing and getting a close look at their projected descent route from Shishapangma. That was in mid-May. Then on the 28th after three bivouacs on the south Face, they reached the summit of Shihapangma. Their route takes a fairly direct line to reach broad snowy couloirs which emerges just east of the summit. For the most part on snow and ice, there is one section of quite hard mixed (Scottish 4) to reach the base of the final “Peapod”. Although the overall angle of the face is not as steep as the team had expected, their route was quite sustained, with few obvious bivouac sites. Four twenty-eight year old MacIntyre, who died later that year descending the South Face of Annapurna this route and his book co-authored with Doug Scott, The Shishapangma Expedition, will serve as a fitting memorial. He was a brilliant alpinist with a sharp mind, whose ideas and inventiveness led and inspired others – a cult figure of modern alpinism.
MacIntyre, achieved some of his greatest climbs, such as the south Face of Changabang and the East Face of Dhaulagiri, with the equally single minded pole, Wojciech Kurtyka, and it was Kurtyka who eight years later pioneered another route on the south Face of Shishapangma. The line he completed with the Swiss pair Jean Troillet and Erhard Loretan takes a similar gully to the Peapod on the 1982 route but on the left (west) side of the Main Summit. Entirely on snow and ice never steeper than 55 degree, this route provides the shortest and quickest climb to the summit of any eight thousand. The line heads for the col between the west and Central summits, but it is best to break out right 200m beneath the col, taking a subsidiary couloirs direct to the Central summit. On the first ascent Loretan and Troillet, in characteristic fashion, climbed the face at night carrying no bivouac equipment and emerging on the summit ridge at dawn. Kurtyka also carried no equipment but was slower and decided to bivouac on the descent at 7800m. The night was ‘pleasantly warm’. ‘For a busy man or woman’, wrote Kurtyka, summing up the accessibility of this route, ‘it is dream ground to flash an 8000m peak.’ But, he added, does a busy man or woman have the necessary confidence and stamina for that kind of high- altitude exercise? The Polish/Swiss Shishapangma climb was completed just two weeks after the same trio had flashed their new route on Cho Oyu. There is a third, harder, line on this face, pioneered in 1989 by one of the giants of Himalayan climbing, Andrej Stremfelj, and his fellow Slovenian Pavle Kozjek. This route rated IV/V mixed and up the buttress between the two central gully lines and took three days on the first ascent. The easiest descent from Shishapangma is the normal route to the north. However, most people will want to return to southern base camp. Kurtyka, Loretan and Troillet reversed their route on the south face. Other parties have chosen the original British descent, coming down the South- East Ridge to the 7300m col between Shishapangma and Pungpa Ri. This ridge has some knife- edged sections and needs care. From the col there remains a long, tiring descent of huge 45degree snow/ice slopes, trending diagonally west to avoid big serac barriers. Shishapangma’s South Face is a fine, sporting alternative to the normal route from the north. The British route is an important landmark in Himalayan alpine- style history. The Swiss/Polish route is the easiest, whilst the Slovenian line offers perhaps the most technical and absorbing mountaineering adventure.
SUMMARY STATISTICS AND INFORMATION
Location:- Langtang Himal, Tibet
Route:- South-Face. Three parallel lines, each with 2200m of ascent on a 50degree face. The 1990 route is on snow and ice throughout, whilst the 1982 and 1989 routes offer varying degrees of mixed ground.
First ascent of Mountain:- Summit reached 02 May 1964, by a Chinese party led by Hsu Ching.
First ascent of Route:- 25-28 May 1982 by Alex MacIntyre, Roger Baxter-Jones & Doug Scott (UK), 17-19 October 1989 by Pavle Kozjek & Andrj Stremfelj (Slov), 2 October 1990 by Wojciech Kurtyka (Pol), Jean Troillet & Erhard Loretan (Swiss).
Height of b/c:- 5600m, above the north bank of the Nyanang Phu Glacier opposite Pemthang Karpo Ri, 6830m.
Roadhead:- Nyalam, 3800m
Length of walk-in:- Approximately 20km, 2-3 days.
Season:- May or October, as in Nepal, appear to be the best months. In May the face will be drier and probably more prone to stone fall.
Permission:- China-Tibet Mountaineering Association, Lhasa (Tibet)
Success Rate:- Quite high