I had been interested in the Lhotse couloir, the obvious line up the west face of Lhotse, ever since seeing it from the summit ridge of Everest in 1996. I spent the last two weeks of April 2000 climbing on Mera (6476m) and then went on to Lhotse base camp (the same as Everest south base camp), arriving on 7 May. I was on the permit of Henry Todd, but had an independent expedition structure, with my own camps and Sherpa team.
On 13 May I moved up to camp 1 (6500 metres). Joining me for the summit attempt was Pemba Sherpa (who had climbed with me on all three Everest expeditions). We then teamed up with a Scottish mountaineer, Sandy Allan.
The weather was consistently poor throughout the season, with high winds and heavy snowfall. I made a summit attempt around 20 May but bailed out from camp 2 (7400 metres) due to high winds. On 25 May I reached camp 3 (7900 metres), having used oxygen from camp 3. On 26 May Sandy, Pemba and myself left camp 3 at 2 a.m. for the summit.
We were breaking trail in snow anywhere between shin and thigh deep. What rope had been fixed by previous parties was virtually all buried. We were not fixing rope. Fortunately snow conditions improved as we got higher, although the weather deteriorated. At dawn the wind rose and by the time we were approaching the summit, we were engulfed in swirling cloud.
A rock peak rises on either side of the top of the Lhotse couloir, both with tattered remnants of fixed rope. Unsure which was higher, we chose the right peak, a piece of technical rock-climbing. A pile of prayer flags lay just below the summit, which consisted of an ice cornice. We topped out at 9.45 a.m. and made it back to camp 1 by late afternoon.
In retrospect, looking at pictures of Lhotse seen from Everest, the left peak is probably slightly higher. Talking to the Himalaya’s ‘keeper of the records’, Liz Hawley, everyone always claims to have climbed the highest peak, whatever that may be, which means that if we did indeed climb a slightly lower peak, it will have been a first ascent. Of course the fixed rope and prayer flags indicate that it is not. The relevant issue of High suggests, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that perhaps neither is the true summit, but a point further along the ridge might be higher. This is based on photographs taken from the south side.
Nevertheless the Lhotse couloir remains a superb piece of climbing and, because of Lhotse’s proximity to Everest, a Lhotse expedition is a fascinating experience of a month spent in the heart of the international Himalayan mountaineering community.