Summiting Shishapangma? – Kristen Harila Back on Top of Yet Another 8,000 Metre Peak Today

Kristin Harila set out last week up Shishipangma, reaching Camp 3 at 7,300 metres before conditions sent her and the team back down to Base Camp. Now she is back up the mountain, and if her tracker proves true, bouncing around on the top of Shishapangma.

Kristen’s track may be a bit all over, but somewhere in there, she is certainly in the vicinity of something that must be the real top, or very close to it.

Starting this morning at 6 a.m., she made rapid progress up the slopes to the Col on the ridge, then ascended directly up the ridge, past a series of spectacular rock towers on the right and hopefully with views far out over Tibet on the left.

She then has to cross over from the Central Summit to the Main Summit, a precarious traverse.

From the Hillary Step, Cho Oyu (center) and Shishipangma on the left horizon. A great view, particularly if you have climbed all three.

In many ways: temperature (-25c and below), winds (15 km. at the low end, with up to 55km at times) and snow (15 cm. or more per day at times) make it still very much like winter in the Himalaya.

But if you want to be first, if you need to be fast, you can’t sit around waiting at Base Camp.

Their first soirée was very much a recce/keep going if you can attempt, to hopefully blast quickly up the mountain. Perhaps worth repeating, it is still winter this time of year in the Himalaya. Not until May does the weather really start to change.

Until then, being first on a peak without any fixed ropes in, climbing without oxygen and playing to an aggressive schedule, they will be doing a real climb, not a « Climbathon « with a high level of uncertainty.

While Shishapangma is the lowest of the 8,000 meter peaks in terms of actual elevation, the normal route is anything but quick, with a long, circuitous route up a glacier, then around and up again, before going up a headwall to a col at 7,300 metres, before you attain a high and spectacular ridge that leads to the summit.

The lower slopes up to Camp 2 lend themselves well to skiing, particularly when the snow is deep or when a gentle glide down is preferred.

Shishapangma from the plains of Tibet. 

As Stephen Venables had pointed out to me when on our climb up the Kangshung Face on Everest, Shishapangma isn’t even pronounceable by most people.

Stephen had been to Shishapangma which generated my own interest – it is a beautiful, remote, exotic, and sometimes, as we have seen over the past few years, inaccessible peak due to its location.

It was also Stephen Venables who got me my first guiding job, on Shishapangma. Steve Bell from Jagged Globe called Stephen and as he was busy, suggested me. Having never guided a climb, little alone a peak in my life, it was an auspicious start.

I went to Nepal via the Jagged Globe office in Sheffield, was briefed in on the logistics by Simon Lowe, and sent off with a shoebox full of money.

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Everest, bottom right, and Shishipangma, upper left, with Cho Oyu sandwiched nicely in the middle. Google Earth

I knew Tibet well, having organized and led five expeditions there. I wasn’t really a guide, I’d actually never guided anything in my life. My impatience levels and desires for higher, harder and ever faster of my youth would have certainly ill-suited me to the profession at that time. But with an interest in all the high peaks and the people that want to visit them, I soon realized guiding could actually be a lot of fun. And Shishers, as we shortened it to, would be a great introduction.

There probably aren’t many whom there first guiding job is an 8,000 meter peak, in Tibet. But at the time, there were few of us making annual sojourns into Tibet however, and working with the Chinese Mountaineering Association, some rascally yak drivers, and with teams of clients and sherpas, there was always a lot going on, most of which you couldn’t plan for.

It was a small business set in a very foreign country with a host of rules, few of which you could actually follow and be successful. Visiting Tibet in any capacity is always an adventure.

Fall season wheat on the Tibetan Plateau. 

You can traverse across China to get to Shishapangma, but most start in Kathmandu, then fly to Lhasa or drive up over the border and into Tibet. Shishapangma is the only 8,000r wholly located in Tibet, but very close to the border.

Like Cho Oyu and the northern routes on Everest, it is just a long way around and there are only a few passes where you can get through the Himalayas. With the closing of the border at Zhangmu, you now go to the West of Shishapangma and drive back across the Tibetan Plateau and up to Base Camp.

Shishapangma from just above Base Camp. Snow drapes the peak and frequent avalanches can be seen and heard sweeping down from the heights. 

To reach Base Camp, you drive up to the end of the road at 4,900 meters, then hike a long 18 kilometers up the valley to 5,700 meters. In spring it will still be cold, the lakes around and above camp still frozen.

However, it is still one of the most relaxed and scenic Base Camps for an 8,000 meter peak. Views out over the Tibetan plateau fall away below you and above rises Shishapangma with its host of steep ridges and icy slopes.

From Base Camp you ascend alongside the glacier, before breaking out left onto the glacier itself. Many ski from here, and you can go as far as Camp 2 on skis, a rather pleasant tour up to the base of the climbing.

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Climbers heading up above Camp 1 on route to Camp 2. The ridge leading to the summit is on the left, going up to the summit, with the true summit being across a snowy ridge to the top. 

Above Camp 1 you go up a steeper slope and then into a high hanging glacier, that with the altitude increasing and surrounded by snow is best to be climbed under cover of darkness. At the head of the glacier at 7,000 meters is a wide and flat slope for Camp 2, with plenty of crevasses around just to keep it interesting.

Above Camp 2 the slope steepens, but only up to a level where you will be having to do some fast turns if you opt to carry skis up for the descent. A few hours up this slope leads to Camp 3, where you can spend another night, or as we did when we climbed it, pause for breakfast and carry on to the top.

Camp 3, Shishapangma, 7,300 meters, or simply a good breakfast stop should you be headed up for the day climb. Ron, (right), Paul  (center), who just recently joined me for a climb on Himlung Himal and I went for the oxygen free ascent. Altitude means the left person’s name escapes me. 

The biggest challenge from here is a mix of deeper snow and the potential for avalanche. Hugging the rocky ridge on the right helps. The ridge twists and turns and in places has some fun scrambling. When we did it, it was before the peaks were all laced up with fixed ropes, and I placed only one fixed rope on a steeper section high up.

We had three Sherpas and we alternated breaking trail – which took, as ever it seems, much longer than we had planned for. The ridge climbing above the col is very fun, spectacular even, you are far above the plateau and edging up with some very big drops on both sides.

The Central Summit lies a good distance from the Main Summit, which is a few meters higher, but essential if you want to touch the very top. This is often avalanche prone on both sides and straddling the ridge, with a potential leap off the other side if the slope does go, a rather frightening prospect. More than a few 8,000 meter climbers have had to return to climb across that final precarious ridge, including Ed Viesturs.

We reached the top at 4 p.m., luckily beating sunset. With a strong and experienced group – Paul had already done the 7 summits, we were all comfortable pushing the day out, weather was very stable and what are headlamps for anyway?

The Sherpa’s strode off down the hill and we followed at a more sedate pace, crawling back into our tents at Camp 2 around 11 p.m.

Here’s hoping Kristen has as enjoyable a climb – and a fast, if not of course faster, ascent, and descent.

And importantly, she has as much fun in safely continuing on her quest.

Peering out between the ice towers onto the Tibetan Plateau.