Starting in mid-October, Bend's Chris Wright, along with his partner, Scott Adamson of Utah, battled deep snow, frigid temperatures, oxygen deprivation and terrifyingly steep cliff faces to claim two impressive first ascents in Nepal.
Snowy, far-flung climbing expeditions, however, are nothing new to Wright. Last November, the 30-year-old part-time Timberline Mountain Guide and area avalanche instructor spearheaded his first Nepalese climbing trip and, in April, Wright and Adamson put up a first ascent on the Mooses Tooth on a remote Alaskan glacier.
The duo's most recent outing, though, was their most impressive yet. Along the way they encountered frostbite (one of Wright's basecamp friends has several fingers that will never look the same), falling rock and ice, frightening this-isn't-what-we-signed-up-for moments, and triumphant victory.
Last weekend I sat down with Wright to hear the whole tale.
the Source: Where were you guys, exactly?
Chris Wright: The far northwest corner of the Khumbu Himal (the Everest Region), in the Nepal Himalaya, near where the northern border of Nepal meets Tibet.
How long were you guys out at basecamp?
We were out 28 days. The whole trip was just under two months. Permits and logistics in Kathmandu, then 10 to 12 days hiking to get acclimatized. It was another three to four days to basecamp.
And you used yaks to carry your gear there?
Kathmandu is down in this valley—it's low—like, 4,000 feet or so. You can take a bus and spend a week walking into the mountains, or you can fly to 9,000 feet and walk from there. Either way, you fly your stuff in and then there are no roads or cars or anything, so you have yaks carry all of your stuff in and dump it at basecamp.
Why not use a porter?
Yaks do a better job and they're treated really well, whereas porters have it pretty rough. There's a family in a village called Thame that we've made friends with and they do a great job, so we pay them a little more than porters would cost and we feel better about it.
How cold was it? It doesn't look very warm in your photos.
If it's a sunny day with no wind you could hang out on a glacier at 17,000 feet with your shirt off, but as soon as the sun drops behind a ridge or the wind kicks up you need to layer up right away. I mean, when we were up high I was wearing big boots, puffy pants, a base layer, a mid layer, a fleece, a shell, a puffy coat, and a giant down jacket—and I was still freezing.
Brutal. What about food? What were you eating?
The cheapest way to do it was to eat Nepali food the whole time, which pretty much means about a month and a half of forced vegetarianism. I think we took something ridiculous, like, 50 kilos of rice and we mostly ate dal bhat—the national dish of Nepal. It's rice and lightly spiced lentil soup and there's usually some curried potatoes and cabbage or something on the side. It's actually really good. On route we ate a lot of Clif bars and gels and a few dehydrated things.
When you sleep on route, do y'all spoon?
It depends on how good your ledge is. Sometimes it's reasonable, sometimes it isn't.
Our ledge was about as deep as this couch (gestures). The first night my head was pressed into Scott's back while our legs kind of hung off the edge. He didn't sleep that night.
What was the hardest part of the climb?
On the first day of the second climb there was relatively moderate terrain up to an ice fall. We got there and it wasn't what we were expecting. It was quite a bit more rotten. It was like you were under a fire hose of snow blowing straight down at you all day.
It was my pitch and I started up, placed two bad screws—the ice wasn't good and the rock was overhanging. So I came back down and talked to Scott about it. I went back up without my pack and by the time I was in it I couldn't reverse the moves. It was really strenuous climbing on rotten ice and really steep rock. It was a pitch that, on a cragging route, I would have been really intimated by and probably wouldn't have done. It was a situation where if you pitched, it would have been bad.
To be clear, you guys made two first ascents?
Yes. One on Lunag West, which sits at the head of the Lunag Glacier on the Tibetan border. It's 21,348 feet tall and we climbed it via its southeast face and named it Open Fire (V WI5 M3, 1,000m). The second was Purgation (VI WI6+ M6 1,100m) on the northeast face of Pangbuk North, which is 21,610 feet tall.
And there was some controversy swirling around your second climb—what's the story there?
In 2009, an international team of Swiss and French climbers claimed to have made the first ascent but it was widely believed that their story was bogus. No one had a first hand account to confirm that until now. But it's pretty obvious once you've been there.
What, they didn't have photos?
They had photos, but they only ever released two, which were obviously taken at a lower point on the mountain.
Does the climbing community accept the Wright/Adamson expedition as the first ascent?
Definitely. Everyone who keeps records of this sort of thing is with us, and I'm continuing to try to pursue a dialogue with the other team members. Two have ignored me and one told me to talk to the trip leader, and he has refused to talk about it.
So what's next?
We're going to go back to the same area next year to try for one of the "last great" unclimbed objectives in the region.
Hear more about the expedition from Wright himself at the May 1 installment of the Bend Outdoor Adventure Speaker Series at Volcanic Theatre Pub.