In October 2021 Tom Livingstone and Matt Glenn headed to the Khumbu region of Nepal to attempt a route on Tengkangpoche’s North-East pillar.
Words by Matt Glenn
The steady ominous beat of Angel by Massive Attack reverberated around my skull as I sat watching clouds roll past the NE Pillar, intimidation is an understatement for what I was experiencing at this moment. The rolling, building beat of this song matched the rising panic I was fighting, we had arrived in the dark the night before and we hadn’t seen the mountain until the morning. I was wide awake at 6am being stared down by this obelisk piercing through the white mountains around it. Clouds started to build from 8am, thwarting my attempts to pick out a line above Quentin and Jesse’s high point. My two years climbing in the Alps suddenly seemed like pitiful preparation for something of this magnitude. At 6487m Tengkangpoche is dwarfed by some of the peaks in the area, however having never climbed at more than 5199m, I was fairly confident that I was punching above my weight.
Tengkangpoche looking like spring condition
The darkness continued to close in as we wearily chopped and kicked a ledge, regretting not bringing a lightweight shovel. Both experiencing the same quiet desperation for food and sleep, already deep in a calorie deficit that the body just can’t reconcile. Our first day had been a mixed bag, although we had manged to reach the second bivi in one day, it hadn’t come without incident.
At 3am we sat in the low ceiling kitchen, bleary eyed, forcing down a mixture of porridge, Nesquik and peanut butter, trying to ensure energy was available for what was inevitably going to be a massive day. Moving across the first moraine, I couldn’t help grinning to myself, we had talked previously about how funny (and incredibly useful) it is to have keeper loops on high end climbing gloves. It makes you feel like a small child running around in winter with your mittens flapping around your wrists. This image forced its way into my head to break the tension that had been building for the last 24 hours. The childhood joy of running around in deep snow and breaking ice under my feet returned. For the briefest moment I was 10 again, with my gloves dangling from my wrists as we paced silently over the uneven debris of the long-receded glaciers.
We covered some easy scrambling ground and frozen turf until we hit our limit of soloing in boots with bags. I took the lead moving at full speed trying to set an alpine pace, immediately finding myself in a blank unprotected corner. Cursing myself for wasting time, I downclimbed and reoriented myself up an obvious easy ramp. “Now we’re suckin’ diesel!” I shouted, the pace picked up and the ground dropped away below us quickly. Reaching an obvious belay, I brought Tom up and started questing across compact slabs, assuming these would offer some chance for protection eventually. No such luck. I hurriedly banged in a peg as far as I could, half of the metal protruding from the blind seam. Praying I would eventually find something else, I continued to teeter up the increasingly thin slab, 2 metres above, 3, 4, feeling like the world’s clumsiest ballet dancer, on my tip toes in double boots with more than 20kg on my back. I stalled, I could see an easy, well protected ledge 2 metres above me. I was frustrated at how easy this section would have been if I was wearing the rock shoes I was carrying. I was dangerously close to coming off, the distant solitary peg my only protection above the belay. “You’ve got this” Tom shouted; the classic mantra from any belayer watching a sketchy lead, hoping to God they do have it. I didn’t. After desperately searching for a better hold and cursing myself again, I eventually slipped, bouncing down the slab, shouting in surprise. I was sure that peg was coming out, fuck me for being so stupid and clumsy. Coming to a stop, I quickly righted myself with the air of someone trying to brush off a stumble they hoped no one had seen.
Looking up at the peg, I almost had to start believing in a higher power, 80% of the silver metal stuck out, an accusing metal finger pointing down towards me, obviously ripped downward by 100kg of force. Shaken by my proximity to disaster so early on the first day, on the first pitch of my first Himalayan trip, head game in bits, I unashamedly asked Tom to take over, sure that he was busy wondering why he ever thought climbing with me was a good idea.
Thankfully Tom’s experience and steady head meant he widened his gaze and found a slight variation up a corner, no less run out but he smoothly led up the last few metres to the ledge I had been aiming for. Firing on to build up some momentum, Tom kept going, simul-climbing all the way up to the point we had dubbed the “double smile” which was one of the more obvious features on the face.
Moderate scrambling ground before the 'smiles'
I took over again, reassuring myself that I did deserve to be here and I could climb easy mixed ground. Thankfully perfect, low angled neve reassured my faltering confidence. We sped up the ramps and beautiful mixed ground, passing Quentin and Juho’s first bivi, only briefly stopping to discuss the possibility of staying for the night. As it was only midday we figured it would be a shame to stop ourselves in full swing, as Tom rightly pointed out though, Himalayan climbing is a marathon not a sprint. We sprinted on.
Irrational Exuberance is a book by Robert Shiller in which he describes and examines economic bubbles which are based on the assumption that things will continue in the way they have previously. Not to be underestimated, this heuristic trap has bankrupt investors, crashed economies and coaxed many climbers to continue upwards. At around 1pm I continued up an easy mixed ramp, with false confidence that there was only 150m to the next bivi and we should be there by 3 at the latest. After much faff and not much progress, I made a belay, brought Tom up and encouraged him to take over and speed things up again. He climbed a fine mixed pitch, followed by what looked like a steady traverse. This however, turned out to be desperately loose and poorly protected. Never deterred, Tom quested on, for around 90 minutes, leaving his bag on a piece of gear half-way through, allowing him to finish the pitch unhindered.
Tom on the deceptively difficult and bold traverse at the end of the first day
I followed, struggling my way towards the belay with Tom’s bag hanging on the rope in front of me knocking me off balance move after move. Completely knackered, I took over for the last snow plod to the bivi around 5pm. As Tom repeatedly pointed out, we had sprinted hard on the first day of this marathon and staring up at the immense blank wall above, I had to admit, I was all sprinted out.
Racing the fading light to the bivi
We made some joke about copperheads; neither of us had done much aid climbing, I was the more experienced having climbed the Nose, involving only the most basic aid. Tom was laughing, shouting down that he’d clipped a genuine copperhead, I thought he was joking. As I lowered him down to me, cradling his bloodied finger, already trying to pretend he was fine, I realise he was not joking. A crusty half mashed copperhead had failed miserably to catch him when he’d slipped off while torquing through a hard parallel crack section.
Lowering him back to the bivi, our meagre first aid kit mostly made up of Betrafoil, a few big bandages and painkillers now seemed almost laughable. Having done the bare minimum to keep Tom’s fingers from being injured any further, I re-ascended the first pitch again. Aid is slow, phenomenally slow if you’re bad at it. After 4 pitches of painfully slow aid, I reached a particularly loose band, slowing my progress further and as tends to happen, my mind searched for ways out. I started to question the logic of carrying on upwards with the knowledge that Tom (our ropegun) was unlikely to be able to lead any more of the hard sections. Additionally the risk of infection for Tom in such an open cut, with 5 days of climbing ahead seemed too high to be sensible. We debated our options while I hung from my top piece of gear, already 4pm we would need to decide soon whether we should fix the lines to carry on tomorrow or pull the trigger and commit to descending today. We engaged in the farcical conversation that many climbers have had, knowing what the right decision should be at the outset, we continued to debate as though we had other real options.
Looking down the steep headwall
Eventually we talked ourselves back to the bivi, deciding that descending the next morning was the only reasonable option given the circumstances. The usual mixture of self-loathing, frustration and relief flowed through me as we returned to the tent. I couldn’t believe we had been turned back so early in our attempt, finding it hard not to dive too deeply into despair, I focused instead on the fact that we still had to descend the 1000m we had gained the day before. I needn’t have worried, injured or not, Tom is great at thinking clearly on descents and making short work of something I would gladly have dragged out for a full day. After several abseils, a few hours of worrying downclimbing and some screeing we were back in our 'basecamp'. We descended the same day to the village of Thame, offering a slightly lower altitude and possibly hot showers, we decided this was our best option for real recovery while the weather rolled through and Tom's finger healed.
Sat in the Third Pole Summitter teahouse, I felt the anxiety that had been weighing on me ease. Despite having to bail early on, the great unknown of Himalayan climbing was now a known quantity. We laughed at WWE on TV while eating incredible Thukpa and Ting Momo (a style of big dumpling). I couldn’t help but feel like a fake, you can’t be a real Himalayan climber with all the comforts of home. All I held onto was the fact that I would have to suffer again when we went back for our second attempt. 7 days: recovering, healing, storms, reading, stretching, writing. None of it could keep my mind from wandering back to the ever-present shadow up the valley. Despite how appealing the line was, we discussed other options, possibilities that might require more hard mixed or free climbing, something that would suit our style better. However, as the mountains emerged from their 3 days of turmoil, the only logical choice was obvious. When we first arrived in Thame, the valley had an air of spring about it, now fully immersed in winter everything in the valley was heavily laden with about a metre or more of fresh, twitchy snow; we would be going back for round two on Tengkangpoche.
A few days later, Matt and Tom succeeded in climbing a major new route on Tengkangpoche’s North-East pillar, after spending a total of 7 days on the route. Watch the full story on YouTube.