First Ascent // Rebecca Coles
In November 2016, Rebecca Coles and Simon Verspeak made a first ascent of Lasarmu La, a 6246m Peak in the far West of Nepal. Rebecca talks about the ups and downs, the highs and lows of her expedition in this remote area of Nepal.
How do you prepare for a trip like this one?
Over the years I’ve built up experience in the mountains; from going on many expeditions to snow holing in the Cairngorms to climbing 6000m and 7000m peaks. These experiences are all drawn upon during an expedition like this.
Would you say you were quite fit when you went, then?
With an active job, I thought I’d be plenty fit enough, so I didn’t do any physical training. Oh boy, did I regret that when we were slogging up the glacier in thigh deep snow with a big pack! Luckily my skills and experience compensated for inadequate fitness. I’m a big believer that efficiency in the mountains can give you the marginal gains for success; these skills can be learnt through experience and training. It's something I talk a lot about on my Expedition Preparation course
So, what is it that made your ascent a success?
Success on routes such as this is dependent on so many things, some within my control and others, not. Going into an area like this poses numerous unknowns. We needed the logistics to go smoothly, to enable us to get to the mountain in the first instance. The expedition required two internal flights, the second being on a single engine plane into a tiny landing strip. After this, a local with some mules helped us ferry our kit to create our base camp. If the trail had been unpassable for the mules, it would have ended right there. We planned well and used two local agents and the logistics all went seamlessly. Good weather throughout a trip like this helps with every aspect – from acclimatisation right through to completing the route. We were blessed here as the weather was incredibly stable for 3 weeks. It was extremely cold though, which meant it was brutal on the mountain. We had a few very early nights!
What did you know about the route before you went?
This is another factor that contributed to our success. We only had two photos of the mountain, as well as a map with very little details and Goodle Earth images to help us plan. We didn’t know if the route was climbable. The information didn’t tell us whether there would be impassable rock bands or, my biggest concern, whether we’d even be able to get onto the glacier.
It sounds like everything went really smoothly, was that the case?
The success we achieved came with many challenges. The peak we had planned as an acclimatisation route wasn’t possible, so that didn’t particular acclimatisation activity didn’t happen. Also on the north ridge we had originally planned for our summit attempt was in very poor condition, along with a tricky rock band that was unforeseen. We only had short window left to climb the peak and both of us felt good to go for the East Ridge route, so we went for it. Having had only one rest day before the summit attempt we weren’t as fully recovered as we would have liked, but it was all we had, so we went for it. The stars aligned and the combination of smooth logistics, good weather, being relatively fit and acclimatized and the route being climbable helped us achieve the summit.
That must have felt incredible. If other people want to follow in your footsteps, how would they go about funding something like this?
Because the peak hadn’t been climbed before, we could apply for grants that support first ascent expeditions. Initially, I thought we’d get about 50% funded through grants we applied for: Mount Everest Foundation, the Alpine Club, the BMC and the Austrian Alpine Club. In fact, we were given very generous funding, I think because the peak was so strikingly beautiful. It turned out that our entire trip was funded by these four grants. We also had generous support from Lowe Alpine and Rab, who I work with as a brand ambassador, and I contacted some other companies who supported the expedition including Leki UK, Primus, and Klymit and Sterling Rope through Beta Climbing Designs.
What technical skills do you need for this type of ascent?
For two weeks we didn’t see another human being, so although the route we climbed wasn’t particularly technical (we graded it around AD/+), our skills had to be solid. With only two of us we couldn’t afford to make any mistakes. Experience at high altitude and crevasse rescue were essential skills, as well as alpine climbing techniques on easy, but exposed, snow slopes and ridges. There were some sections of pitched climbing and we used snow bollards and ice threads to descend by abseil. Many of the technical skills can be learnt in Scotland or the Alps. Other skills can only be learnt from experience on remote expeditions, including navigating off Google Earth and GPS, route finding through complex terrain, the psychological impact of climbing in remote places and the instinct of when it is safe to push on and when you should turn back. The most essential skill of all is the willingness to suffer (also possible to learn in Scotland in winter!).
Did you have any hairy moments?
The climb actually went very smoothly, with the most difficult bit being the toil through deep, unconsolidated snow up the glacier to establish a high camp. However, we did have a bit of a lucky escape, not on the climb, but on the first day we were in our base camp. We’d planned to hike up a side valley as acclimatisation, but I wasn’t feeling very well, so we were just lounging in camp and I was feeling sorry for myself. A shepherd walked up the valley and set the whole side of the mountain alight, presumably to improve the grazing for the yaks that come into the valley in summer. The vegetation was tinder dry; it went up in an instant and burnt ferociously into the night. If I’d been feeling OK, we would have been caught up in the fire, which would have been very bad.
There were so many great moments on this expedition. The trek in was fantastic, through the most beautiful autumnal forest of walnut trees, fir and birch. Eating honey given to us by local bee keepers straight from ancient hives hung on the sides of the gorge. Seeing the mountain, Lasarmu La, for the first time and it looking even more beautiful than it had in the photos. Making a huge bonfire from the abundant deadwood by our base camp and sitting out under the stars all wrapped up in down. And, of course, summiting. Looking across the Himalayas from the summit into Tibet, and realising that the distinct peak we could see was the holy mountain of Kailash. Then descending by the most incredible alpenglow. Magical.
If Rebecca’s first ascent has lit a spark inside you, you can meet Rebecca and find out about planning your own expedition at her forthcoming Mountain Expedition Preparation Course on 12th- 13th April 2017.
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