SouthWest Pillar on Lobuche East and Cholatse North Face Nov 2017
Steven Fortune. Daniel Joll, Matt Scholes and Kim Ladiges
Lobuche (or Lobuche) East is an easily overlooked peak. We did exactly that. We travelled to Nepal to climb the Nth Face of Cholatse, and wanting an easy acclimitisation peak nearby, we also got a permit for Lobuje East. The SE ridge, up to a false summit, is an easy snow ridge and is guided commercially, with fixed ropes on the snow section. We used this route as an easy way to get up to 6000m, have a high sleep and prepare ourselves for more interesting things, as many other people have done.
However travelling up the vally below on the trekking route to Cho La, ones eye cannot help but being drawn to the striking pillar of granite coming down into the valley towards the town of Dzongla. It sweeps upwards, steeping towards the top in a monolithic looking block. We weren't aware of any ascents, but suspected such a striking line must have attracted some attention. Our first impression was 'no way', that looks too steep, too hard. Overhanging granite walls at altitude in the light and fast style we were interested in did not seem to match up. However closer inspections with binolulars and camera zooms showed the right side of the upper face was attainable by a series of ledges, and above that, a series of corners was visible. After an easy scramble up the first few hundred metres of the route for a closer look, and some time looking for and matching up systems on the upper face, I came back to the others and declared I thought it was on, and expressed my desire to give it a go. Our basecamp was in the valley floor under Dzongla. We could look one way to the perma-shady nth face of Cholatse, watching spindrift wash it's walls, or the other way to the sunny rock spur on Lobuje East, so it wasn't hard to persuade the others on its merits.
We planned for a single bivvy on the route, food and gas for 2 days, and climbed as 2 pairs with a single half rope and light rack for each pair. Bivvy sites looked possible on snow covered ledges either at the base, or top of the upper wall. Above this was an ice arete, so we carried 2 tools each, along with a snow stake and screws, as the difficulty of this section was a big unknown too. Some nice light single boots would have been nice, but we didn't have them, and ended up climbing the lower rock in heavy and sweaty double boots.
We left our camp in a dark moonless night, making quick time to the base of the pillar, and the first easy scrambling portion, having previously scouted this section. We came in from the left hand side, starting on a morraine crest. We pretty much kept to the crest of the ridge, the easier gully to the right was filled with rubble and topped by looming seracs. The climbing was pleasant and solid, slabs trickier than expected in double boots! There was a series of 3 gendarmes, each requiring an abseil down the back. None had any existing tat, making us think no-one had come this way before. Before the large, obvious detached pillar, the crest steepened dramatically and we traversed rightwards, and abseiled down to the orange coloured, chossier gully on the right of the ridge. Here we found an old piton. We could follow the left side of the gully on ok rock at a lower angle and a safer position back to the crest. Here we crossed the chossy gully and started up the crest of the upper block. This was covered in light powder snow and a few mixed moves were pulled. This got us to a saddle below the steepest upper section. We traversed rightwards on a rubbly ledge system, pulled over a couple of steeper bulges to gain some steep snow which we climbed in the dark before finding a lower angled section we could level for a bivvy site.
The next morning we waited for the sun to hit the rock before climbing the lovely granite wall above. This was the hardest and also the nicest rock climbing, with a section of steep flakes and corners. We hauled the leaders pack on this section (2 short pitches). We then had a number of easier pitches on the right hand side of the pillar, just left of the serac band. This gained the top of the pillar and we switched back to boots and crampons for the ice above. Moderate ice climbing lead to the summit with dwindling light and visibility. From the summit, we traversed the ridge to the false summit at the top of the SE ridge. This involved some downclimbing and a short abseil into the notch in the ridge, then a pitch back onto the ridge proper. An easy traverse lead to the false summit right on dusk. The fixed ropes and well marked trail lead to a rapid descent and we made it all the way back to base camp in a few hours.
Once back with good internet connection, we researched the SW pillar on Lobuje a bit more to find who had been there before. Eric Brand and Pemba Norbu Sherpa climbed the pillar in 1991. We would have shared very little terrain with them as they climbed to the right of the lower pillar up what is now a chossy gully, then a proud line up the crest of the upper pillar involving aid and fixed ropes. It was also reported that Spaniards Manolo Miranda, Carlos Miguel and Eduard Sanchez climbed a line on the pillar in 1995. They climbed to the left of the initial line on the lower section and the right on the upper wall, so is more likely we shared similar terrain with them. I thought it was a fantastic climb, well worth considering, and suprisingly overlooked. Harder free climbing possibilities exist on the buttress, our line took the line of least resistance, but still involved some fine technical climbing.
After three days rest, we packed for our next goal, the North Face of Cholatse. Conditions seemed good this year, with a good covering of snow. During our trek in, and acclimitisation, we had daily afternoon snow showers. This made the face unappealing, with spindrift on steeper sections, and buildup and occasional collapse on lower angle sections. However, this trend had stopped and we had clearer weather, allowing a stabilisation of the snow and we felt confident to get on the face. We aimed for the French Route, the most logical line, and prepared for 3 days on the mountain. We soloed up loose snow for a fair while before the face steepened, and the snow turned to perfect squeaky neve. We started pitching, snow stakes being the only option for anchors on this steep face. This was a long, tiring face, steeper than expected, but great conditions. We approached the steep water ice flow gaining the upper ramp on dusk, climbing the last pitch in the dark. Tired, we looked for bivvy spots, others had found cave/serac features in this area, but we found none. We settled for digging out a platform in a section of steep/soft snow, widened with an ice hammock. Easy climbing lead up the ramp, with the headwall to gain the ridge the crux of the climb. This had an akward mixed section, with musch clearing of loose snow and poor anchors. A funky ice pitch lead to the ridge, our first sunshine, flatness and fantastic views. Even though it was early, we decided to bivvy here as it was such a fantastic spot. In the morning we lead up the snow/ice ridge, with some suprisingly funky/tricky sections, but good ice screw belays. There was no sun in the morning and we all suffered in the cold, fighting to keep circulation going in hands and feet at this stage. The summit plateau was a welcome relief, flat and sunny! The Southwest ridge of Cholatse is now commonly guided, and had fixed ropes installed earlier in the season, so again we had a quick and convienient descent, making it down to the now abandoned SW ridge basecamp that night for a last night out and the last of our food before hitting the trekking trail, teahouses and feasting.
From the same expedition an ascent of the North Face of Cholatse.