Climbing to the top of the lowest 8,000 metre peak, Shishapangma, (8,027 metre 26,335 feet), should have been routine for American climbers Anna Gutu and Gina Rzucidlo.
They had already done all the rest of the worlds’ 14 tallest peaks, touching the top of the world on Everest and successfully braving the frightening slopes and black rock of K2.
Both Everest and K2 were far bigger challenges than they would have expected to face on the smallest of the 8,000 metre peaks, lowly Shishapangma. In the line-up of the worlds’ tallest peaks, Shishapangma falls in the “easy and accessible” category, almost a beginner peak to the others.
And both the American woman climbers were accompanied by two highly experienced Sherpa guides, Anna climbing alongside Mingmar Sherpa with Nims Purja’s Elite Expeditions, and Gina with Tenjen Lama at Seven Summits Treks. Tenjen had just finished doing all the 8,000 metre peaks alongside Norwegian Kristin Harila, in a record setting, astoundingly quick, 92 days.
I’d first heard of Shishapangma from Stephen Venables, the first British man to summit Everest without oxygen on our Everest Kangshung Face Expedition – when I went to guide the peak, and asked him how hard Shishapangma was compared to our route on Everest. He said,
“Robert, Shishapangma is a ski peak.” Which pretty much summed it up.
For the Americans Gina and Anna though, it was a chance to make history, real climbing history, and for one of them to become the first American woman to complete all the 14 highest peaks in the world.
It was a goal first accomplished by American Ed Viesturs in 2005, only followed this year in 2023 by Chris Warner, who became the 2nd American to ascend them all.
But just one of the woman on top of Shishapangma could be the first, the other would be second. They were not climbing together and not on the same team.
So it was a race, a race to the top.
And like any race, the focus was on speed, on beating the other person, on being first.
And with both Gina and Anna having been in this race up all the other high peaks, the desire to finish, for one of them to finally claim the prize would have been greater than ever. It was more a climbathon, than a climb.
And their guides, working for competitive companies, would have had both a personal and professional stake in assisting them to the top as fast as they could. Both the woman would have been relying heavily on their guides. Though the women were obviously very fit, their level of experience, compared to climbers like Viesturs and Warner, was exceedingly low.
The things that make Shishapangma easy climbing however, also make it extremely dangerous.
The slopes are often at an angle that are ideal for avalanches, at 30-45 degrees, akin to a black diamond run at a ski area.
And Shishapangma, the only 8,000 metre peak situated wholly in Tibet, sits out by itself on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau, exposed to any winds sweeping in from the north and west. At this time of year, the harbingers of the winter winds are already kicking in, rapidly creating wind slab of any new fallen snow.
Another climbing challenge is Shishapangma has a long ridge that makes up the upper mountain, with a beautiful, natural climbing route leading up the Northwest Ridge to the Central Summit.
But the Central Summit, which is where many cliimb to, isn’t really the summit at all. The True Summit is still across a fragile crest of snow, with immense drops on both sides. While many people have opted to stop there, if you are setting records, it isn’t good enough. You have to go to the very top.
Even Ed Viesturs stopped at the Central Summit on his first climb, and then to achieve his record, went back and climbed the peak a second time to reach the True Summit.
The alternative to that final, harrowing skid on your bum across the crest of the dangerous snow ridge, is to traverse lower down, across the upper reaches of the Northeast Face, then climb directly up to the True Summit.
This slope is on the lee side of the peak from the prevailing winds though, so loads up with snow with every snow-flake that falls from the sky. So that ski slope leading to the True Summit is also something of a death trap, which has turned back more than one team who just haven’t felt comfortable crawling out onto those slopes. On the 6th of October this year, many teams opted to turn around, considering conditions less than ideal.
With the recent snow and winds of an unsettled fall season, this year that slope reportedly released two avalanches, sweeping across the climbing route. Besides taking away the two American women and their Sherpa guides, three or more additional climbers are reported to be injured, with rescue operations in progress.
Currently Anna Gutu and Mingmar Sherpa are confirmed to have died, with Gina Rzucidlo and Tenjing Lama still missing.