Our first climbing objective was the brainchild of Willie Benegas, the more handsome of the twin Benegas Brothers. Just south of the Mt. Everest massif lies this long, exposed knife edge of rock that runs parallel to the valley floor of the Khumbu. The ridge divides the main Khumbu valley from the neighboring valley that butts up to the massive Nuptse and Lhotse faces. The ridge is low enough that it doesn’t hold snow year round. But the spine of the ridge lies almost entirely above 18,000ft.
Willie’s idea for this climb was a good one. It provided a chance to sleep up high two nights while at the same time affording us some fun climbing with views that are truly unmatched in the Khumbu valley. It was a good next step in our acclimatization plan and provided a shorter route to where we were already going with the guarantee that we would not see a sole.
How did we know we would not see anyone? This climb has only been done by a small handful of people, Willie being one of them 11 years ago. Even our head Sherpa Tendi had never done it, and he has stood on top of neighboring Mt. Everest 11 times! We still have not been able to find any documentation that a guided group has gone this way before. So, for now, we THINK we were the first clients to attempt the traverse.
After spending two nights in a tea house in the village of Dingboche at 4,410 m (14,470 ft), we did a day hike up to a small peak above the village. Just below the summit, we stashed water and climbing gear that we would need for the traverse (we would be passing this way to access the climb the next day). After stashing our supplies we hiked back down to our tea house in Dingboche.
The following day we shouldered our packs containing our climbing gear and basic essentials. Our three support sherpas dawned packs that contained our overnight gear (tents, sleeping bag, and cook gear) as well as some additional water as there was no source of water above Dingboche. We then repeated the two-hour hike up to where we had stashed the supplies the previous day.
We ended up setting up our two tents (Liz and me in one, and Reagan, Willie, and Tendi in the other) in a dry lake bed. One of the support Sherpas stated that this lake had always been full but was emptied during the bad earthquake 18 months earlier. For us, it provided a soft and comfortable campsite out of the wind. With so many hands available the camp was quickly established at 16,500 feet. The support Sherpas then left and descended back to the village of Dingboche for the night.
The night was very quiet and very cold. By the time the first hint of light came over the horizon we were on the move up. Our first objective was to reach a saddle that was roughly 1,000 feet above us. This entailed steep hiking and hopping over large boulders. Ninety minutes after leaving camp we stepped onto the saddle and felt our first rays of the sunshine which was very welcomed as it was REALLY cold.
We put on our harnesses and helmets, had a quick snack and started up a gully that was full of loose rocks. After 45 minutes of scrambling up a gully, we gained the ridge proper via another, much smaller saddle. It was now time to pull out the ropes and have some fun!
Willie and Reagan went first on one rope and Tendi, Liz, and I followed on a second rope. The beginning sections were fairly tame so we didn’t place any protection in the rock. The idea being that we can move faster this way and if someone did fall it would be easy for the other person(s) on the rope to arrest their fall by simply using their body weight.
So after a spicy first move, we found ourselves scrambling along this almost knife-edged ridge at 18,000 feet with 3,000-foot drops on both sides. It was hard to maintain focus because of the jaw-dropping views in every direction. Behind us stood the pyramid shape of 23,000 foot Ama Dablam. To our left, we could see the daily cloud build up working its way up the Khumbu Valley. To our right was the nearly 7,000-foot southeast face of Nuptse. And straight in front was the ridge leading to Pokalde that was dotted with amazing rock spires and towers.
For the next hour, we all enjoyed climbing in the warm sun with fantastic rock and weather. We were making good progress with Tendi, Liz and I doing well to keep pace with the fast twosome of Willie and Reagan. We came to a spot that required a short repel to continue. Willie fixed the anchor and one by one we repelled onto a very narrow and exposed saddle. From this point we decided to head out onto the south face as staying on the ridge would require some really hard climbing.
As we traversed across ramps and ledges we also climbed short sections of easy 5.6 climbing. But soon the easy terrain ran out and we found ourselves on the south face and blocked in front and above by really technical terrain. Willie took the lead and tried to find a way up and back onto the ridge. After ten minutes of it, and only getting in two pieces of protection, we all determined that the climbing was way too hard.
So we decided to drop down a short bit and traverse further across the face. Twenty minutes later we were standing on the edge of a deep gully the dropped down the south face. Above it appeared that there may be a route that would get us back on the ridge, which would be good since we are supposed to spend the night in the valley that is on the other side of the ridge.
Shortly after we left camp this morning our three support Sherpas hiked up from Dingboche and broke down our camp and hiked all of our overnight gear down. They then followed the trekking route through the valleys to the north. The plan was for them to meet us on the col north of Pokalde. The idea is that we would drop off the climb and have our camp set up for us….pretty cush!
Willie decided to give the route above us a try. Reagan put him on belay and he started leading up and around a small roof and out of sight. After about 40 feet of climbing, he had only placed one piece of protection. In order to travel light on this climb Willie decided to bring very little protection to place, and due to a miscommunication half of our cams got left on top of an earlier rappel.
Suddenly we heard rockfall and a muted scream. From around the rock roof above we then saw Willie tumbling down the face on his back and head first. The one piece of protection he placed didn’t hold as it pulled out of the rock. This actually worked in his favor somewhat as the tension of it pulling flipped him onto his back and allowed his backpack to take the majority of the impact.
Willie then bounced below us and was lucky to have his pack stop him between two boulders about ten feet below us. Reagan was still holding the other end of the rope, but with no protection in he was lucky that Willie stopped otherwise he may have been pulled down the face as well. I still get chills thinking about this scene.
Willie quickly hopped up and said that he was fine. We all just sat and stared at him, still in shock from watching our guide take a 40-foot lead fall! As he scrambled back up to us he started to notice his right arm and elbow were banged up, as well as one ankle. Despite the fact that the adrenaline was still pulsing through him, he felt the fall.
Although he swore he was tip-top, we took the time to stop and assess our situation and Willie’s potential injuries. For the past ten days, the weather had consistently rolled in every afternoon and was now starting to roll in on us. Being at ~6,000m we didn’t want to be caught up here with wind and snow pelting us. The route above was not clear — and as Willie found out, the rocks above were a bit loose. Although Willie had been here 11-years before, he had not completed the traverse, so this was uncharted territory for him as well.
If we continued across the nasty gully ahead of us we faced vertical blank walls of rock to either move forward or go up. So it wasn’t too tough of a decision to make, we had to descend the face below us. This did come with some negative side effects. All of our overnight gear, food, and support was in a valley on the other side of the ridge. To add to our dilemma we had no way to community with our support team, of course, we didn’t have any rooms reserved in the village below, and the valley was very busy. Lastly, we had no information on the 3,000-foot face below us and it looked sketchy. Liz called the descent, the worst case scenario for an AMGA Alpine-Guide exam, meaning it was extremely complicated terrain and difficult to protect both the clients and the guide. Our guide Tendi used every trick in the book and when he ran out of tricks, Willie showed him some new tricks. They were an amazing team getting us down!
It was slow going and a bit tedious, with constant rock fall hazard but of course we all got through it brilliantly. When we finally reached some flat ground, we stopped and made a quick group Nalgene of hot soup. In an effort to get down quickly before any potential weather moved in, we neglected to eat. It was, of course, the best soup we’d ever eaten, given that we’d been on the move for about 12-hours.
Despite our best efforts we ended up walking into Pheriche well after dark but Tendi had literally run ahead of us, found us a room to stay in, and ordered us dinner. So when we arrived, they had hot pasta ready for all of us. This particular tea house had an excellent kitchen but some of the worst facilities we stayed in. I think it’s here that I picked up the bug(s) that resulted in my full-body staph infection.
Of course, we hadn’t been able to reach out to our support team and let them know where we were, so all we had was what we carried on our backs, which was very little in terms of overnight gear. After a short and fitful night of sleep, we had breakfast and then walked the few hours uphill to Lobuche were the rest of our team was already staying.
The traverse was not a success in terms of the route we planned to do but it was successful in that none of us were hurt, despite what could have a devastating fall.
Here are few photos from the Pokalde traverse and our walk up from Namche Bazaar.