Hillary Expedition update

Thursday 7 May 2009, 7:13AM

The climbers making up the New Zealand Nyambo Konka expedition are currently in the city of Ya’an in the Sichuan province of China, resting after a nine-day push on the mountain.

Their objective was the unclimbed 6114m Nyambo Konka peak.

One of the climbers, Penny Goddard, has reported the team is in good spirits despite experiencing considerable difficulties along the way.

"We established a base camp at 4040m in the valley to the east of Nyambo Konka after two days walk up a tumbling glacial riverbed, carrying considerably heavy packs. Unfortunately the liaison officer who issued our permit and was required to accompany us refused to walk to our base camp and suddenly informed us that the expedition was cancelled! We spent a sleepless night before some careful negotiations allowed us to continue with our climbing."

The group began acclimatising higher up the mountain by ferrying heavy loads of climbing equipment and food to establish camps. The first one of these higher camps was Cirque Camp at 4840m.

Penny developed some symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) but quickly improved after descending and she was able to go back up the following day to 5000m with no ill effects.

With the weather generally poor (wet and warm), there was much debate and discussion about route options.

"One of the major difficulties of the eastern side of the mountain is that most of this side is overhung by large, menacing ice cliffs and cornices. Choosing a line which would be safe from this hazard and also climbable took quite some energy," Penny says.

A break in the weather was seized on by New Zealand climber Lydia Bradey and Mark Jenkins, from the United States.

"Lydia and Mark headed higher up the mountain to reconnaissance the route, camp high and if possible, push to the summit the following day."

Penny says the plan was for her and another climber, Kenny Gasch (also from the United States and a late addition to the team), to follow the next day "and hopefully all reach the summit over two days".

"Lydia and Mark climbed strongly up our chosen route, pitching through steepening rock and snow. After 8-1/2 hours of arduous climbing with heavy packs they reached the summit ridge at about 5700m. At this point it quickly became apparent that the summit ridge was impassable for us from this direction. Mark describes desperately steep hard blue ice falling away into deep chasms, and extremely technical and dangerous ground. Mark and Lydia waved a red flag at us (the symbol that we should not climb up) and began a descent into the last hours of daylight. Around 5480m they established a camp at the only available spot on the entire route (sheltered from avalanche hazard behind a small ice wall the width of the tent) and stopped, exhausted from the strenuous day at altitude."

During the night there was a heavy snow storm with thunder and lightning. At first light the pair abandoned their camp, fearing the increasing avalanche risk as more and more snow fell. They left behind a tent, sleeping mats, food and down jackets so they could travel more quickly and safely with light packs, and finally arrived exhausted, but safe, back at Cirque Camp.

Penny and Mark remained at Cirque Camp so they could climb back the next day and recover the abandoned higher camp while Lydia and Kenny descended to the valley floor.

"Once again, during the evening it began to snow, but this time with such an intensity (around 4cm an hour) that Mark and I once again feared that the avalanche hazard would increase to a very dangerous level, and that we could become trapped up high on the mountain if the storm continued at such a rate," Penny says. They decided to pack up and leave during the night, before more snow fell.

"Soon we were descending into midnight darkness, falling up to our waists at times in the deep new snow."
They arrived soaking wet back at base camp to find it "completely buried under thick snow".

"The following day we regrouped with the others who had moved down valley to a group of stone huts housing local Tibetans, and we began to haul our loads back out down valley, this time with the help of some Tibetan horses."

Lydia and Penny discussed attempting to climb Nyambo Konka from another side, but after examining maps, photographs and taking stock of the information they had gained by climbing high on the mountain and seeing how difficult the access was on all sides, came to the conclusion that their chance of success was very slim.

They are now going to explore a remote region near Ya’an. Mark (who writes for National Geographic) is researching an ancient tea-trading route called The Tea Horse Road.

"There is a section of the ancient Tea Horse Road route which has not been turned into roads and upon examining the map, Lydia and I became excited about some unclimbed 5000m peaks in the area. We intend to head into this valley exploring and climbing," Penny says.

They will spend a couple of days gathering information, planning and shopping for provisions for the next leg of their adventure.