When Jordan and I were spitballing about this Langtang Valley adventure, we knew we were going to be sorely tempted by some of these mountain peaks surrounding the village of Kyanjin Gompa. We were excited to behold the behemoths of Langtang Lirung and Gangchempo, but being a pure novice to alining I wasn’t deluded enough to think I could try one of those. Yala Peak was always a stretch but I think we both believed we had it in is to climb.
The turning point came when we met Dawa, a middle-aged Tibetan local of the Langtang Valley. He told us he had climbed Yala hundreds of times and would be happy to show us the way. So we locked it in. As we continued up the valley towards Kyanjin Gompa, I now had a new destination in my mind- Yala.
So once we were in Kyanjin Gompa we met Dawa and his friend Dun-Du to plan our ascent. I borrowed a heavy winter jacket and gaiters from Dawa. I would use my own backpack, shoes (low top Asolos), crampons, and pole. It would turn out that I was a quite underprepared to take on an 18,000 ft peak but that is a problem for later.
Dawa’s childhood friend Dun-Du was also joining on the climb. The four of us set out in the early hours of the morning, up the valley eastward towards the high glaciers and snowcapped peaks. We trekked for a few hours on a path hewn into the steep side of the mountain. The landscape was intimidating, with the steepest mountains I’ve ever seen in my life. Unlike the Rockies with their rounded tops and long slopes, the Himalayas were like jagged shards reaching vertically high into the sky. The slopes were littered with loose rocks and boulders that looked like they should have rolled down the hill centuries ago.
Big Himalayan Ravens hung above us matching our speed in the fast wind. A herd of wild Himalayan Tahr (goats) stampeded across the path in front of us. Dawa and Dun-Du were delighted by the goats and we stood and watched them for a while.
At a strategic location the Tibetans had gathered some wood fuel under a dry rock. The four of us loaded up with lumber on our packs so that we could have fire at the camp tonight. After this waypoint, we turned left against the mountainside and took steep switchbacks up the mountain.
We arrived at a series of primitive stone huts- Yala Base Camp Yala Karka. Jordan and I pitched our tent in the lower hut while Dawa and Dun-Du pitched theirs above. Dawa started the fire and got some tea and coffee on, then some ramen noodles. I ate a Cliff bar and then Dun-Du gave me some coconut cookies and called it “mountain food” so I ate the whole sleeve of packaged cookies in about a minute. One or two large ravens trotted about the camp confidently asking for bits of food.
After lunch, it started snowing hard. We retreated to our tents at around 2 pm and got in our sleeping bags. Around dinner time we climbed out of our snow covered tent and brush the couple of inches of snow that fell off of the rainfly. We trudged through the powder up to Dawa’s tent and they had the fire ripping with pasta on the heat. We at a meal of pasta with ghee and fried onions & garlic. Everyone took a few swigs of Rakshi which Dun-Du fondly called “mountain medicine.” The snow was still falling lightly when Jordan and I retreat back to our tent.
Then began a painful night of altitude sickness in the cold tent. I had a splitting headache behind my eyeballs and slept in short fits with intense waking dreams.
When I stepped out of the tent at 3:30 am in the pitch black darkness of the mountains, I almost tumbled over from disorientation. The sky was clear for the first time I had seen on the trip.
There were millions of stars- more stars than I had ever seen, framed by the great black ridges of the Himalayas in all directions. The Milky Way cut a brilliant purple and orange streak across the sky.
We ate a simple breakfast of rice with ghee over the fire and headed up into the darkness.
It took a few hours of steep walking in the snow before we even saw Yala peak. Then we descended for a while to a small frozen pond and then the true climbing began at the base of the mountain.
My little rubber crampons broke immediately. I probably wouldn’t do a climb like this in so much snow again without good crampons. My lack of an ice axe was supplemented by my trekking pole which actually held up very nicely and proved an absolute necessity for bracing against slides. I immediately stripped off most of my layers and filled my now-heavy backpack with these layers.
The first part of the climb was through steep, snowy rock fields where the footing was never secure- on slippery snow or loose rock. Then we got to a very steep (maybe 30-degree grade) section with deep snow, which we crossed transversely against the slope of the hill. The hill terminated at a cliff just to our right hand side so sliding was not an option. I felt pretty worried about my flat shoes on this section, but on each step I kicked my toe in several times to hard pack the snow around my step, and dug my pole in to my side and it was pretty secure. Again- crampons would have been very nice.
We then did some light scrambling with our feet and hands up snowy, loose rocks and then climbed another huge steep boulder field.
I began to feel very tired. I found that I had to do a few things to prevent despair from creeping into my mind. I stopped looking at the summit- it looked way too far to be achievable. I stopped looking backwards as well. I had to focus my mind on the very simple action of each distinct step, without planning, reflection, or any thought. I found that only if I shrunk my experience to solely the moment of each step, that I could shrink the feeling of suffering enough to continue.
Eventually, we were at the headwall where there was reasonably challenging 4th class snowy scramble with spooky exposure. I was quite well prepared and confident for rock scrambling, but any time I had to put my foot down in snow I felt totally unconfident that my feet would stay in place. You couldn’t even trust the rocks fully- as many of them would just pull out and trundle down the mountain if you pulled too hard on them. Again, so many of the rocks in these mountains felt like they should have just tumbled down to the valley many centuries ago.
When we arrived at the summit, I felt some amount of relief but no great triumph like I had conquered something. I still couldn’t really be thoughtful or reflect on anything at all. That being said, I was rendered speechless by the visual stimulation of being on a roof of the world. I could see fully into China- the 26,300 ft mountain Shishapangma stood solid in the distance. Below Shishapangma I could see a mountain pass into Tibet cut by a large glacier. I could see fully out of the Langtang Valley to the southern plains of Nepal.
Dawa & Dun-Du were totally stoked and sang an epic summit song for like 10 minutes. Dawa yelled “Yala Peeeeeak” in his Tibetan accent like 35 times. I asked Dawa when was the first time he climbed Yala Peak and he said that he and Dun-Du had climbed it together with a group of their neighborhood friends when they were 9 or 10 years old. This helped put our achievement into perspective.
We had some snacks and hydrated and took plenty of pics and then started the long walk home.