A wood stove heats the dining room of Gokyo Namaste Lodge, one of two lodges my new friend Tenzing runs in this tiny town. The room has windows on three sides to encourage the amazing view over the lake and steep mountain faces. It is 8 am and I just ordered French Toast, three scrambled eggs, and milk coffee.
I have three days of climbing gear laid out in my room organized perfectly. Before I stuff it in my new 90 L Red Fox Summit pack I’ll try to weed out a thing or two to lighten the load. What to leave; a cam, an ice screw, a dinner? Then I’ll head out on my biggest adventure of this elaborate trip to Nepal!
Scouting Cholo Peak (6043 meters) from every angle, I have 35 pictures showing different parts of the approach and climb that I study intently. I really think I can climb this mountain by myself!
The approach was heavy, but went a bit smoother than expected. The next morning I left camp at 4 am with the delusional idea I could climb Cholo and the steeper peak to the east in one go.
The first obstacle in front of me was a glacier that spills between said two peaks in a wildly sculpted tongue of ice 400 feet wide and 1000 feet tall. It’s comprised of stacked cliffs of ice with promising passages in between. This part of the glacier is quickly being melted by the sun into penitentes – spires of ice 3 inches to 3 feet tall — a natural wonder to see, but slow to move through.
At the base of the route I have a big decision to make: Do I leave the rope behind? If I do…
- The pack will be WAY lighter.
- I’ll move faster. It’s the only way I’ll have time to try the second peak.
- It’ll force me to down climb the mountain, like Reinhold Messner does.
After musing on the conseqences of leaving it, I take it. The added option of rope-soloing and rappelling significantly increases my chance of summiting…worth its weight!
Quickly the terrain changes from breakable crust to hard snow and the slope angle dictates French technique, then American, then front pointing. The climbing begins. Here we go baby!
This north face ice band is the actual ‘climbing’ part of the route. It’s definitely the most fun part too! 1100-feet tall, it is comprised of eight wide U-shaped runnels with 3-foot high ridges in between. The runnels on the right are a hair steeper and have more blue ice. Avoid that! I’m approaching from the left anyway. This area is soft ‘alpine’ ice that is secure to climb.
I traverse from runnel to ridge to runnel in search of the best quality ice. I hear the words of Mark Twight as I do: “With every move, there must be uphill progress.” Rock bands above funnel me to the right where the ice becomes even better. The angle increases to 70 degrees and I’m climbing in my dreams! Excellent condition wall of ice high in the Himalaya is mountain climbing at its finest!
But then I hit the top of the ridge where I was expecting to walk onto a flat snowy ridge and safely celebrate the excellent climbing. Instead I’m peering down a vertical cliff of ice on the other side. My tools are insecurely hooked on a stegosaurus fin of blue ice that defines the ridge and my feet are on a transition of alpine ice and difficult blue ice. Feeling unwelcome, I trust nothing. I’m scared and don’t know what to do.
“Make Moves,” says Brandon, one of my teachers and climbing partners. My brain instinctively fires back into action. This uninviting blue ice is inviting an ice screw, and I’m wearing a harness with a pre-rigged personal tether for such situations! Drill in the screw, clip it, lock the gate, safe!
Well. I’ve pretty much lost hope of summitting. But my energy has momentum, and a lot of it; it is still going to the top!
I pull the screw, climb back down to the soft ice, and start climbing laterally toward the summit. I’m on the east ridge just a few hundred vertical feet from the top, but a thousand feet horizontally. At this point I still don’t know what my plan is, but I am making moves!
Blue ice. Not cool with it. Back up to the slightly less intimidating ridge. Delicately. “C’mon now, you got this,” I tell myself.
I place another screw, clip it, and breathe!
Without knowing the next move, I start making a V-thread, because what I do know is I am finished climbing. I have maxed out the risk Travis Powell is willing to accept. This is the point my family has been waiting for. I will have to rappel from here.
Wait. It appears I can rappel off the other side of this mountain, onto lower angle terrain, and walk to the top! Maybe.
As I lower myself down the south face I second guess myself. What if I can’t make the summit? What if I can’t climb back up to the ridge? What if everything is more difficult than it looks? I resolve to keep going. I will always keep going, into the night and next day if I must.
But my headlamp! I left my headlamp behind to cut weight. Are you serious Travis? You NEVER leave your lamp behind in the mountains! Whatever, I’m committed now.
I rappel down to flat ground and take a breath! It is nice to be standing on my heels and I use this opportunity to eat, drink, and apply sunblock.
Keeping on it, I easily navigate another exotic world of ice cliffs and spires. Running water just below the summit reminds me how lucky I am to have such warm temperatures at 6000 meters! I chug the ice cold water and refill my Nalgene.
Within an hour of freaking out on the ridge, I stand on the summit of Cholo Peak. Without much emotion, I sit down to absorb the view and fuel my system with the same old snacks. A storm is continuing to build over Everest and will be here soon, so I scramble to get down quickly.
Walking, down climbing, plus 12 rappels puts me home in just a few hours. When I return I say to my tent, “Well, I did it.” Or rather, it did me. I am drained and need to maintain my human suit to minimize the amount of pain it will incur for pushing it beyond its desires. But that’s ok, my heart makes decisions and my body must pay for it.
Reflecting on my climb, I feel content. All the time put into studying this peak and preparing the supplies was rewarded with success. On the climb, I moved confidently and implemented safety systems when necessary. My decision to rappel off the other side of the ridge paid off well.
Solo Cholo was everything I wanted out of life, but maybe it was too much? The intensity, fear, exhaustion, and the battle within yourself are often overwhelming. So was it too much? No, it was just enough to make me question everything I do.