The Fury of the Beauty: Gyachung Kang 2002

Himalaya Nepal
All routes to its summit are extremely difficult and dangerous. Photo: Lindsey Nicholson

Between Nepal and China, between Cho Oyu and Everest, lies the 15th highest mountain on Earth, after the 8,000’ers: 7,985m Gyachung Kang.

Its summit tends to darken early because the clouds that settle atop Cho Oyu cast their shade and also because of its relatively low prominence of 700m.

Gyachung Kang, the world’s highest non-8,000m peak. Photo: Ivan Fodor

Unlike other mountains in the area, it is very far from the trails. From the Nepalese village of Gokyo, no path leads there. It is a spectacular trek with no trace of humans.

The lower slopes are not difficult, but the cliffs above ensure there are no easy routes to the summit. Very few people have tried to climb it, and fewer have summited.

Off the beaten track. Photo: Arjayempee

The first ascent

Twelve expeditions have attempted Gyachung Kang and 26 climbers have summited. The Japanese Himalayan Expedition from Nagoya reached the top first, on April 10, 1964. Under the leadership of Kazuyoshi Kohara, the team climbed via the West Face and Northwest Ridge, using supplemental oxygen.

It was not a smooth climb. Although five climbers summited, the expedition lost a member. Akio Otaki, 29, suffered a fatal fall from a height of 7,750m when he slipped.

Cho Oyu and Gyachung Kang. Shadows and avalanches. Photo: Himalayan Wonders

First without O2

A French-Nepali group under the leadership of Jean-Claude Marmier launched the second expedition to Gyachung Kang in 1986. Its six mountaineers managed a new route via the South Face/Southwest Pillar. This second ascent, on May 12, 1986, was also the first ascent without bottled O2.

That same year, in October, a Spanish-American team tried their luck. Led by Jose Luis Zuloaga, they stopped at 7,100m. It is interesting that after that first ascent in 1964, no other group used supplemental O2.

In October 1988, two members of a South Korean team reached the top via the Southwest Face/Southwest Ridge.

Just 100m lower than the lowest 8,000’er. Officially, only 12 expeditions have tried to climb it. Photo: Wolfgang Dressel

The difficult first ascent of the North Face

Eleven years later, in October 1999, a Slovenian team led by Andrej Stremfelj made the first ascent via the mountain’s North Face. They bivouacked twice, once at 6,800m and once at 7,500m. On October 31, Tomaz Jakofcic and Peter Meznar made it to the summit. The next day, Marko Car, Matija Jost, Marko Prezelj, and Andrej Stremfelj also topped out.

During the descent, Prezelj slipped in the dark and fell 200m. Miraculously, he survived, but he couldn’t walk without the help of a person on either side. He was bleeding from his nose and had other injuries. He could not remember the fall or his own last name.

Bad weather, extreme cold, storms, avalanches, and difficult terrain await those who dare attempt Gyachung Kang.

Wispy clouds over Gyachung Kang hint that danger is close. Photo: Vadim Petrakov

On the edge in 2002

In September 2002, 37-year-old Japanese climber Yasushi Yamanoi and his wife Taeko Nagao arrived at the 5,800m Base Camp.

Yamanoi, typically a lone wolf known for solitary, risky ascents, and Nagao, who had already lost fingers to frostbite on other climbs, planned to repeat the 1999 Slovenian North Face route.

Wojciech Kurtyka, Yasushi Yamanoi, and Taeko Nagao on the first ascent of the south face of Biarchedi Central Tower. Photo: Yasushi Yamanoi

A dangerous ascent

On October 6, they began to ascend. From Base Camp, they worked their way up to Advanced Base Camp at 6,100m, at the foot of the Slovenian route. The upper part of the North Face features huge seracs, and avalanches can appear suddenly, sometimes chaining together. They passed below the seracs, climbing mixed terrain at a 50-60˚ incline. At 7,000m, they set up their tent on a narrow ledge for the night.

The next day they continued climbing. Turning right, they came to a 30˚ plateau at 7,500m. Here, they bivouacked again. On October 8, the weather turned, and heavy snow began to fall. Yamanoi could already see that the toes of his right foot had started to turn purple and Nagao began to feel dizzy. At 7,600m she aborted her climb. Yamanoi decided to continue, despite the severe frostbite on his foot. High on the mountain, Nagao decided to wait for Yamanoi to summit before descending.

Yamanoi could barely dig the toes of his boots into the ice wall. Each blow must have given him excruciating pain. On the same day, October 8, at 1.30 pm Yamanoi reached the summit of Gyachung Kang alone. At 3 pm, he descended back to his wife. Together, they camped again at 7,600m.

Yasushi Yamanoi at 7,300m, climbing on the North Face of Gyachung Kang. After this, the weather drastically worsened. Photo: Yasushi Yamanoi Collection

A descent through hell

The next day they continued down. At 7,200m, on a small ledge barely 10cm wide, they stopped to bivouac. This was when Gyachung Kang’s fury began.

Three avalanches passed over them. Nagao took the initiative. Their descent had to continue. She took the lead, descending ahead of Yamanoi. The storm raged around them. Tied to Yamanoi, Nagao was hit by one of the avalanches. The force of the impact hurled her against a rock and ripped her from the wall.

Yamanoi could not see her, and the rope was taut on a rock. Nagao soon regained consciousness, but the rope that bound them was about to break. While she held on as best she could with her ice ax and crampons, Nagao yelled at her husband to cut the rope.

“Yama” in Japanese means “mountain”. Above, Yamanoi on the summit of Cho Oyu in 1994. Photo: Yasushi Yamanoi Collection

Descending blind

Nagao was losing a lot of blood from the blow to her head. She couldn’t see anything out of her left eye, and she had lost one of her gloves. Yamanoi tried to reach his wife, but another avalanche took his goggles and his sight began to fail. Soon he had lost vision in both eyes. Blind, it took him four hours to reach his stricken wife and they were again forced to bivouac on the North Face of Gyachung Kang.

The next day, Yamanoi had regained sight in his left eye, but his wife could no longer see anything. They had lost their fuel too, so they couldn’t melt snow for water. Nagao had not eaten for six days.

Continue or die

Exhausted, they continued to descend. They managed to reach their Advanced Base Camp, but none of their support team was there. In a desperate 10-hour struggle, and with Nagao still blind, they inched down the glacier. Eventually, they had to stop to bivouac.

Despite a seemingly endless night in the open air of Gyachung Kang, and suffering from severe frostbite, they kept the iron will to survive. Yamanoi gathered his strength and reached Base Camp on October 13 to ask for help. Only the cook, Gyaltsen, was still there. Everyone had assumed that Yamanoi and Nagao were dead.

The glacier below Gyachung Kang. Photo: Arjayempee

Nothing left behind

The two survived, and despite their injuries, they lowered all their gear and rubbish from the mountain onto the glacier. They were flown by helicopter to a hospital in Kathmandu.

Above, Yamanoi after climbing ‘Heaven’ in Yosemite, 10 years after Gyachung Kang. Photo: Ryota Kumagai

“I had to convince my wife to leave it [the gear and rubbish] on the glacier if we were to have a chance to get off alive. She made me promise that we would retrieve it later, before storing it safely in a place she would remember. We went back for it two years later, in 2004, but the debris-strewn glacier was unrecognizable by then,” Yamanoi later said.

No more fingerprints

Yamanoi lost four fingers and all the toes on one foot. Nagao lost the rest of her partially amputated fingers from previous climbs. Yamanoi must now buy boots of different sizes. “It’s a bit difficult to grab the rock, oops, and where are my toes? Oh, they are missing!” he likes to joke.

No fingers, no tears. Photo: Goat Cz

It could be a bitter memory, but Yamanoi cherishes it. “I do not like to tell this story, people will not understand me, and by telling it, I will lose my mountain. It is special to me, I want to save it,” he explains.

Perhaps that is part of Gyachung Kang’s beauty. A little-known jewel, distant and elusive.

As their friend, Wojciech Kurtyka, says: “Beauty is the door to another world.”

A special couple who dedicated their lives to the mountains: Taeko Nagao and Yasushi Yamanoi. Photo: Goat Cz

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About the Author

Kris Annapurna

Kris Annapurna

@KrisAnnapurna reports about outdoor activities, current expeditions, and stories related to the history of mountaineering in the Karakorum, Himalaya, Tien Shan, and other ranges.

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Thrill seeker
Thrill seeker
16 days ago

Wow! Fortitude, luck, most of it bad and the will to live.
Amazing story, almost could be fiction but those missing fingers don’t lie.

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