Our "Chulu East" from high camp
Back in 1991 a group of us were desperate for a Himalayan summit. You must understand that none of us was Reinhold Messner, but we were fairly competent winter climbers so had set our sights on a Nepalese Trekking Peak. In previous years we'd missed out on Mera Peak (bad weather at Lukla meant that our flight never left Kathmandu!), and Ramdung Peak in the Rowaling (steep ice and high winds beat us on the final few metres to the summit). After much discussion we decided on Chulu East in the Manang Himal, just off the Annapurna Circuit. None of us had been to that area before, and the description in Bill O'Connor's book "The Trekking Peaks of Nepal" was favourable.
We met up in Glen Coe, Scotland, to look at photos of the route that had been sent to us by a guy who had recently climbed it (and have a few beers at the Clachaig Inn too it must be said!). But what a surprise when we sat down to look at the slides and route description, it bore no comparison to the Bill O'Connor version at all! The peak described was clearly in the same area, and we were told that "the maps of the area are very poor", and "no one can make their minds up which peak was what anyway". There are 4 peaks in the area designated as "Trekking Peaks". Chulus West, Central, East and Far East. After more discussion, and beers, we decided that all would become clear once we got to Nepal, but what a forlorn hope that was!
All the required permits and permissions were sorted, and after the customary couple of days exploring Kathmandu we set off on the Pokhara bus. Before we'd even left the Kathmandu Valley we got stuck in some horrendous roadworks. But our driver managed to negotiate the equivalent of a boulder field, nearly rolling the bus several times, and soon we were back on track. Then about half-way to Pokhara there was an almighty screaming of brakes, followed by Nepalese swearing, the bus went sideways, and BUMP! We'd avoided whatever caused the skid in the first place, but the sudden braking made all the kit bags fly forwards off the roof, and the bus drove over half of them! We were very lucky in that the only real damage was some unexposed slide films of mine that got trashed. It could have been so much worse.
Eventually it was time to set off walking, and we could relax into the awesome scenery of the lower Marsyandi Valley. If anything the Annapurna Circuit trail is busier than the Everest basecamp route, and I'm sure it has got even busier since we were there. But the scenery is a delight. You walk through the world's climatic zones as you ascend, and the valley sides close in. You start off in sub-tropical banana groves, and after a few days you are above the tree line surrounded by huge snow capped peaks. At Pisang the weather worsened, dropping lots of snow right down to the valley bottoms. There was no point trying to go higher in these conditions, so we spent a couple of days exploring the valley up to Braga Monastery, and took an acclimatisation trip up a side valley to the south. From here we could look across to the north side and see several peaks all claiming to be a "Chulu". Our sirdar and local sherpas started to name the various peaks, and it was soon clear that even they couldn't agree. Eventually they (strongly coerced by Ang Kami the sirdar!) decided which one was our peak, but it still looked different to Bill O'Connor's one!
As we headed up into the mountains to the north of the main trail we knew which mountain we were headed for, but we weren't convinced that it was the real Chulu East. We found a nice grassy bowl to establish our base camp, and as the sun started to set a couple of us walked up to the ridge line to see what lay beyond. There it was, standing proud at the end of the next valley, Bill O'Connor's Chulu East, exactly like the photo in his book, but it wasn't where we were going. We were heading for a peak a few miles to the east at about the same altitude. Amazingly, our peak didn't look like the one in the slides at Glen Coe either, now we were really confused. But we actually didn't care. The mountains were all stunning, all around 20,000-21,000' the views to the Annapurnas behind us to the south were magnificent, and the weather was clearing up, this was heaven.
The next day we headed on up the steep slopes above base camp. Grassy at first, but then steepening to a rock band that was still partly iced over. We set up some fixed ropes to the top of the ridge, and suddenly our peak was laid out before us. Perfect and pointed, with a distinct ridge leading to the summit. Yes that was a worthy mountain, whatever it was called. There was a very worthy glacier directly between the mountain and us too, heavily crevassed and nasty looking. We found a flat spot in the snow and left some gear for our high camp, then descended back to base camp for the night.
The peak looked great, but the glacier was far worse than we had imagined. We spent the night wondering if we could even get across it to the base of our mountain. The next day dawned clear and cold, but we soon warmed up on the climb to high camp. We got there early and had plenty of time to explore our surroundings. The sherpas thought they had seen a line across the glacier, and set off to check it out. I spent a couple of hours up on a small hill overlooking high camp and the glacier, waving at the sherpas to direct them to what I could see was clearer ground. As the sun got lower, and the cloud and mist swirled in, this was one of the most beautiful places I have ever been, even if I didn't know exactly where it was!
The Ice Cave on the Summit Ridge
We left the tents in the dark, knowing that we had a long day ahead, and trying to make the most of the better snow conditions early in the day. The glacier crossing in the dark by head torch was interesting, but we steadily wound our way through the maze of crevasses and climbed a few small steps. It took a couple of hours, and by the time we had crossed to solid ground the Annapurnas to the south were beautifully lit by the rising sun. We were still in the freezing shade for another hour or so, but as we started up the steep snow beyond the glacier the sun caught us up.
The conditions were perfect. The glacier crossing had been much easier than expected, everything was going to plan. As the snow steepened we decided to take it in pitches. This slowed us down considerably, but we had decided that this wasn't a race, everyone was going to summit if possible. Everyone was more than happy with the decision, we were a close group and a very happy bunch at this time. I was the second person, after sherpa Sonam Temba, to reach the summit ridge. There we found a beautiful ice cave where we sat and watched the rest of the group slowly working their way up towards us. The sun was shining, Sonam was great company with a wealth of stories to tell, the time literally flew by. The Annapurnas to the south, and Manaslu to the east, made a great backdrop, I shot off loads of film.
By the time everyone was at the ice cave it was getting towards mid-afternoon and the clouds were building up to the east. The snow on the summit ridge was also deep and soft. When we recced it bits slid off in chunks, it was getting dangerous, big decision time. By now we knew that time was short. Several people had decided that the summit ridge was as far as they could go anyway, and they only had enough energy to get back down to camp. A few of us still wanted to try for the summit. It didn't look far off and the ridge was easy angled, but the snow conditions were terrible. One group started their descent straight away, while 4 of us tentatively set off for the summit. We didn't get far though. Even roped together, and progressing at a snail's pace, it felt very dangerous. We turned back. At the ice cave there was still a queue for the descent, some people were very tired, and the clouds were closing in all around us now in the fading light.
By the time we reached the glacier again it was pitch dark, then the lightning flashes started. Thunder rumbled all around us. Here we were, in the dark at nearly 20,000', on a glacier in a thunderstorm, covered in metalwork! My main memory of the glacier crossing was being the last person when it came to jumping a particular crevasse. It hadn't been too wide at first, but after 11 people had jumped it, the far side was eroded and now quite a bit further away. I took a run up and launched myself. I knew about half-way across that I wasn't quite going to make it, so I threw my axes out ahead of me and clung to the crevasse wall like a spider. Reflexes kicked in, and I climbed out before I had time to think, scary and exhilerating at the same time.
Eventually we got back to the tents and much tea was brewed over the next few hours. Should we go back tomorrow and finish it off? We decided against it, the snow wasn't going to improve, the storm had deposited another load, honorable failure and all that, there was always going to be another day somewhere else.
Looking across to the Annapurnas from the ice cave
The next morning the storm had gone and the descent was a joy. We were disappointed at missing another summit, but everyone was still alive and up for future challenges. Back in the valley we rejoined the main trail, and a couple of days later crossed the Thorung La. Those of us that still had summit fever decided to camp at the top of the pass and attempt Thorung Ri (Thorung Peak) the following day. This is the snow and ice dome to the south of the pass. We managed it without major incident, our first peak over 20,000' and 6,000metres. The descent of over 8,000' the same day to Muktinath was tough on the knees, but by now we were floating on air. First summits are always something special.
So that was it. A few weeks walking the Annapurna Circuit, and a few days wandering dazed and confused in the Chulus. We still dont know if our "Chulu East" has a name, but to be honest we don't care. It will always be Chulu East to us.