Words By: Quentin Roberts
Photos By: Quentin Roberts + Jesse Huey
The North pillar of Tengkangpoche (6487m) stands above the Thame valley in the upper Khumbu region of Nepal. It is only eight kilometers from the Everest basecamp trekking circuit, but the area is comparatively quiet and never sees the same amount of traffic. The valley is steep on both sides with 6000-7000 meter mountain summits towering above. The faces are all laced with unclimbed features of rock, ice, and snow. It is strange to me that steep, beautiful, mountains like this get overlooked by the vast majority of humanity. The summits of these mountains are around two kilometers lower the summit of Everest; most people consider altitude to be the only measure of difficulty when it comes to climbing in the Himalayas.
Quentin Roberts switches from boots to rock shoes on Tengkangpoche (photo Jesse Huey)
Tengkangpoche has 2200 meters of relief from the base of the mountain to its summit, the vast majority of which is vertical terrain. The rock is compact, often unprotectable metamorphosed granite. Snow sticks to it, but rarely bonds to become protectable ice. It’s a difficult mountain, far away from home. I spent two months in 2019 trying to climb the pillar with Juho Knuuttila, coming painfully close to the upper ridge. This year I went back with Jesse Huey. Jesse has not only climbed cutting edge routes all over the world, but is also a close friend. The very partner you want up there.
Jesse Huey descends in the first of many storms, this one buried the valley in 3ft of snow (photo Quentin Roberts)
Jesse and I arrived to great conditions, and were both feeling fit, healthy, and motivated. Things were looking good! Permits, partners, pandemic and all, but that was about to change for us. Snow started to fall early in our acclimatisation missions, and unseasonably calm high winds were not strong enough to suck the moisture out of the valleys like they usually do. When good weather finally looked like it was going to materialise, two cyclones appeared, resulting in a straight month of precipitation. Everything else might have been good, but you can’t control the weather!
Jesse Huey making coffee while the storm clouds build (photo Quentin Roberts)
With time I realize that what you get out of a climbing experience is directly related to what you put into it. If you want to climb something that hasn’t been done before, or something that is difficult for you, you have to put in the time and the effort. There is no way around it. You might have a higher chance of success on an established route, but that isn’t the point, because the ultimate reward is less. Climbing isn’t about security, it is about embracing uncertainty and growing through the process.
Quentin Roberts traversing on the lower part of the pillar (photo Jesse Huey)
Bull-headed and antsy, we attempted the route anyways, but were predictably shut down by a storm. We consoled ourselves with a half day excursion on a beautiful 200m Grade VI ice climb we called Cho Menh. Cho Menh is the candle you burn during a Puja, the local ceremony where you give offerings to the Buddha. In our case we were praying for good weather. The new ice route would get five stars in any of the words best ice-climbing destinations, but for some reason it was hard to be psyched because we were so focussed on the main goal of the pillar. Eventually the monsoon arrived, closing down the Himalayas for the season. We left empty handed. It was a huge amount of effort to put in considering that we never got a real chance to try.
The North Pillar of Tengkangpoche (6487m) (photo: Quentin Roberts)
We look at social media and see endless success stories but forget that behind all of these stories is a massive amount of failure. Failure is something we all know well, but also something none of us want to talk about. People feel so much pressure to be successful, that they hide their failures from the world. Failure is part of the process, arguably most of the process, and we can’t forget that learning from it is what ultimately leads to success. Jesse says this quote by Ronnie Dean Coleman a lot: “Everybody wants to be a weightlifter, but nobody wants to lift no heavy ass weights!”