Tahoe to Tibet: Offenbacher meets with climbing legend, scales 19,000-foot peak
One sunny day in the middle of May, Joe Davey got a call from the other side of the world.
“Hey, everything all right?” the South Shore man asked.
“Yeah, we just need to know the weather,” said Todd Offenbacher, host of Tahoe’s affiliate of Resort Sports Network.
The climber was stuffed into a tent with three others, a blizzard raging outside on the slopes of Haizi Mountain in Tibet.
With no TVs, computers or radios, Tahoe’s weatherman needed to know what Mother Nature had in store for them. That’s when the satellite phone came in handy.
Davey logged on to WeatherUnderground.com to look up nearby town Kangding, where present conditions showed “light rain.”
“Looks like it’s going to clear up after that,” he said from Tahoe.
Offenbacher’s crew needed at least four days of clear weather to attempt one of the last unclimbed 19,000-foot peaks in the world.
The forecast meant it was a go.
Haizi Mountain juts out over the Qinghai-Tibet plateau at 19,155 feet in Western Sichuan province, formerly Eastern Tibet. Dubbed “mountain of the lakes” in Tibetan, Haizi looks over a glacial-blue lake surrounded by prayer flags.
Glaciers creep down Haizi’s jagged facade. Ice fields hamper passage to both summits. Snow is common year round.
And while fresh snow is often good news to a Tahoe powder hound, it meant a lot more work to Offenbacher’s team as they set out that clear morning.
Old timer support
Back at base camp, a mountaineering legend looked on, driving the team’s inspiration.
Fred Beckey, 83, had been salivating over the thought of Haizi Mountain for decades by the time he crossed paths with Offenbacher five years ago. He knew it would make quite a tick on anyone’s first ascent list.
Having logged the most first ascents of any mountaineer in history and authored numerous guidebooks, Beckey is regarded as a legendary, insatiable mountaineer who made climbing his life’s passion. His name dominates the Cascade Range, but his exploits have taken him throughout the world.
Never married, and without kids, Beckey has inspired countless young startups to go for their dreams.
“Fred was the guy I’d read about when I was a kid and say ‘I want to be like him,'” Offenbacher said. “He picked the plumb lines from the Sierra up to Alaska.”
British and Korean teams had attempted Haizi, setting up a route to its North Summit. But the true summit remained unclimbed.
“We were afraid someone was going to climb this thing before we got to it,” Offenbacher said. With him were Dave Oleski, Ralph Sweeney and Jeff Wenger, all top-notch athletes and adventure filmmakers.
The first all-American team’s goal: a new, more direct route to the North Summit and then an attempt on the true summit.
Finding the will
Mountaineering puts all the senses on overdrive. As the body exerts itself to the max, the climber’s mind must still work clearly, constantly observing conditions, discussing possible hazards, finding the route, making key decisions, and ensuring gear is used properly for safety.
And through the steady pant of his own breath, the climber listens to the sounds of the mountain. As temperatures change, glaciers groan, ice cracks and snow settles with low whomping sounds. The slopes hold many dangers: hidden crevasses, avalanches, and rock falls.
Fear is a constant companion.
“You get really small inside,” Offenbacher said. “You aim for something that looks 20 minutes away, and you get there after six hours.”
The trip did not pass without incident. At one point the lead climber went out of sight and the team’s rope went taut. The snow ledge they had been using as an anchor on a steep ice pitch collapsed. They found their footing and the climb went on.
On their descent, a rope broke as it passed through a climber’s rappel device, usually a death sentence. Wenger fell backward down the mountain, crampons flying, but somehow landed on his feet and stuck it.
Success with a twist
On May 17, after two overnight camps, the team topped out on the North Summit of Haizi, a little over 19,000 feet in elevation.
The true summit was just a hop, skip and jump away. Or so it seemed.
In the saddle between the peaks, the team found a deep crevasse with snow blown in large curls over its edges. They decided it could be impossible to climb out of it once descending into it, as they’d done with several crevasses on the way up.
“It might have been a huge blessing,” Offenbacher said, looking back. To get down the crevasse, they would have used the same rope that broke.
Their decision at the saddle means Tahoe has its weatherman back, safe and sound.
This year’s edition of the American Alpine Journal will feature the new route to Haizi’s North Summit: the Beckey Direct.
The highest true peak of Haizi Mountain awaits, unclimbed, for whoever dares try next.