Michael and I take the lead up a scree-choked stream draining from the Gangjam glacier. Two hours of climbing through talus brings us to ice-blue seracs rising like frozen waveforms from the mottled glacier. An hour further, in the cirque beneath the black wall of Kailash, we begin to sink up to our knees in sun-softened snow. Michael’s altimeter reads 17,500 feet, and above us, the mountain’s north face rises in a 4,000-foot vertical thrust of glazed rock, capped by a treacherous overhanging white cornice. Jaws gone slack, we lift our eyes in awe toward the Throne of Shiva.
“How about it, bro? Break out the crampons?”
“Jesus! I am not seeing a good route on that wall,” Michael replies, and we both laugh. Kailash remains one of the few legendary mountains on this planet left unclimbed—out of reverence. “And look at that freakin’ cornice!” Michael adds “Nevé ice for sure. Like frost on a windowpane. Won’t hold your points for shit.”
There were rumors, nearly a decade ago, that the legendary Austrian mountaineer, Reinhold Messner had surreptitiously planned to bag Kailash, a task which he certainly had the skill and resources to accomplish. But when Messner saw the Precious Snow Mountain for himself, he realized what a desecration it would be to set crampons on its face or boots on its summit. He’s since become a vocal proponent of keeping Kailash off-limits to climbers in perpetuity.
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Stairway to Heaven
We climb through shale and scree toward a cathedral-shaped butte called Arhat Yenlagjung by Buddhists, and “Nandi”—after Shiva’s bull—by Hindu pilgrims. Beyond soars the sheer, striated wall of Kailash. By mid-afternoon we reach Sheldra, overlooking a talus-filled amphitheater known as the Golden Basin. This is the beginning of the nangkor, the legendary inner circuit. An avalanche of snow plummets through a deep vertical cleft in Kailash’s south face, scaring the horizontal strata of the mountain. It was called “Stairway to Heaven” long before Led Zeppelin was a gleam in the eye of the universe.
Surrounded by barren brown formations of odd and evocative shapes that morph into demons in the minds of oxygen-deprived devotees, the “Precious Snow Mountain” stands alone and aloof. Its smooth black wall ascends to a white crown, a slightly bulging pyramid. Plumes of snow dance in the wind from its summit, and ice crystals tumble like granular sugar through its funneling vertical rift onto the treacherous nangkor route. A rough unmarked trail climbs to 19,000 feet at Serdung Chuksum La—or Pass of the Thirteen Golden Stupas—then descends precipitously to Kapala Tso and Kavala Tso, two tiny glacial lakes on Arhat Yenlagjung’s eastern slope. Passage is often obstructed by troublesome dakini—female mountain spirits—and the frequent avalanches of rock and ice they send tumbling down the “Stairway” to chasten arrogant interlopers.