Luke Smithwick Thwarted on Labuche Kang III

Last month, experienced Himalayan alpinist and guide Luke Smithwick travelled to the northern Himalaya to lead a climb of Labuche Kang III East, a virgin peak standing at 7,250 meters.
The five-strong multinational team spent some time acclimatizing in Nepal on trekking peaks, before flying to Tibet in early May. After a few days in Lhasa, they moved on to base camp, which is within 40km of the well known eight-thousander Cho Oyu.

Camp one on Labuche Kange III East. The team in high spirits before the severe beating began. Crevasse falls, full-on drenchings in hidden kettle ponds, and other delightful life experiences ensued in the following days. This is first ascent high altitude mountaineering in the Himalaya. Bring your big boy pants. Caption and Photo: Luke Smithwick

Smithwick approached the climb ‘expedition style’ by fixing ropes up the northern flanks of the peak alongside two climbing Sherpas, then the rest of the team followed. Advanced Base Camp was set at 5,258 meters, Camp One at 5,751, Camp Two a little higher at 5,995 meters, with the final Camp (Three) at 6,276 meters.

Forty degrees in average steepness doesn’t mean it was always forty degrees. A steeper section of the route, with Luke Smithwick dealing with fixing 8mm static rope for the group anchored with 22cm ice screws. Yes, that is alpine ice. This is not a snow plod. Caption and Photo: Luke Smithwick

Smithwick reported that crossing the terrain from Advanced Base Camp entailed hard work up a lateral moraine to Camp One, followed by running a gauntlet of seracs to  Camp Two. Further risk awaited en route to Camp Three, with severe crevasse danger.

Escaping the labyrinth. Getting to the upper snowfield and camps of LK3 takes route-finding skills, luck, and a willingness to keep going when it sucks. Caption and Photo: Luke Smithwick

The team made good progress, fixing ropes up steep headwall, and were within tantalizing sight of the top early on May 20:
We turned around only 400 meters from the summit after climbing for 8 hours up a blue ice wall that averaged 40 degrees in steepness.  I felt OK and able to go on… along with the two Sherpas I was working with, however our group was fairly exhausted collectively, and I was guiding, so we retreated to our Camp Three at 6,276 meters (20,486 feet).
A forecast of bad weather also influenced their decision to retreat. But those weather reports that suggested the group needed to summit by May 21 at the latest proved wrong, and the predicted storms never arrived.

6,276m Camp Three on Labuche Kang III East. Surrounding this camp, Luke made “the death circle” with one of the climbing ropes. No one was allowed to leave the circle, as the perimeter was riddled with crevasses. Two crevasse falls occurred right on the edge of this camp, and they were big enough to eat someone. Fortunately, no one was injured on the climb. Caption and Photo: Luke Smithwick

In total, the team recorded 17 crevasse falls, although none were considered “big”. Smithwick also said that they fell into water on the glacier 24 times. “You will not summit this mountain easily,” he concluded. Nevertheless, the prolific American climber plans to return to Labuche Kang III East, possibly as early as September.
The team had earlier believed the mountain was the highest open unclimbed peak in the world, but further research has revealed that Muchu Chhish in Pakistan at 7,452 meters is higher. However, not everyone, including Smithwick, believes that Muchu Chhish is prominent enough to be considered a separate peak.
[Ed: June 4. This story has been edited to reflect that Kabru, a peak on the India-Nepal border, has recently been climbed and that the jury is still out about whether Muchu Chhish is an independent peak. For a discussion of mountain prominence, see Prominence or Dominance: What Makes a Mountain]