Gauri-Shankar was once thought to be the highest mountain in the world. This peak of 7134m, in what is known as the Rolwaling Himal chain, is actually 1714m lower than Everest/Chomolongma/ Sagarmatha. It lies on the border between Nepal’s Dolakha District and Tibet at 27°57’57” North latitude, and 860 20′ 07″ East longitude.
The mountain consists of two peaks, Gauri and Shankar, less than two kilometres apart. Shankar is the main peak, Gauri (7010m) the secondary peak. The ridge that connects them is above 6500m at its lowest. The two peaks resemble a seated couple and have been given the names of the Hindu divinity Shiva, or Shankar, and his consort Parvati, or Gauri.
Gauri-Shankar is an interesting massif because even a slight variation in the viewer’s position distinctly changes the mountain’s shape. Flying west to east, travelers can watch Gauri-Shanker metamorphose from a broad massif to a knife-edge with striking cornices on the top. Even a four-hour walk from Tingsang La to the Bhagwati temple at Kalinchowk in Dolakha brings a significant change in perspective.
Steep cliffs and ice-faces drop down from all sides of the mountain. To the north-east, the Menlung Glacier slants toward’s Tibet’s Menlungtse peak. To the south-east, there is a sharp and distinctive drop to the village of Beding, just seven kilometres away. To the south, the mountain drops down to the gorge of the Rolwaling Chu. To Gauri-Shankar’s west and south-west lies the valley of the Bhote Kosi, a major tributary of the Tama Kosi. This valley continues into Tibet, to the mountain’s north and north-west side, where it is known as the Rongshar Valley. To the west lie other peaks of Rolwaling Himal, Tsoboje and Tengi, as well as the 5755m high Trashi Labtsa pass that leads into the Khumbu region.
The topographic map will show that Gauri is located on the watershed boundary between Tibet’s Ronghsar Valley and Nepal’s Rolwaling Valley, while Shanker lies entirely within the watershed of Ronghsar Valley. One would, therefore, assume that Gauri lies on the border and that Shanker lies entirely within Tibet, since most of the Sino-Nepali border runs along watershed boundaries. However, according to the 1979 border agreement between the two countries, the frontier runs like this: it toes the watershed boundary up to the peak of Gauri, where it makes a sharp turn north and runs along the ridge top to Shankar. From there it cuts diagonally southwest across a rock face to join the watershed boundary, at a spur called Ghod Chadi (6009m).
But Rolwaling’s vegetation is not the kind one would expect to find in arid rain-shadow valleys elsewhere in the Himalaya. Except for clearings around villages, most of the valley is covered by dense forests of rhododendron, bamboo and conifers. Fogs frequently creep up all year round from the Bhote Kosi, keeping the area moist. Very little is know about the fauna of the Valley, which is regarded as “beyul”, a holy valley, where no hunting is allowed. Along the Rolwaling Chu, which flows westward for 30 km, from the Trakarding Glacier to the Bhote Kosi, lie the villages of Nyamare, Ramding, Gyabrung, Beding and Na. They are inhabited by Sherpas, who it is thought migrated from Tibet later than the Sherpas of Solu.
The climbing history of Gauri-Shankar dates back to 1950s. Reconnaissance of the area was carried out by a British team in 1952, by the French and Swiss in 1954, and by another British group in 1955. In 1959, a Japanese expedition intended to be the first one to scale the mountain, but because their pieces of equipment were robbed by Tibetan Khamba rebels they had to give up their attempt.
It was not until the spring of 1979 that climbers actually reached the summit. The first men on top were Dorji Sherpa and John Ruskelly, members of a Nepali-American expedition. Fourteen expeditions followed them, of which three succeeded in reaching the summit of Gauri. Two were able to continue on to Shankar.
There has been no known climbing attempt from the Tibetan side. Unlike some other peaks, Gauri-Shankar has been good to climbers: there has been only one recorded death on the mountain, during a Japanese expedition in 1985.
A Spanish group was the last one to attempt Gauri-Shanker in 1986 autumn. Even though they had climbing permits, the Spaniards were able to proceed to the mountain only after two weeks of having to deal with government authorities. Since then, the Ministry of Home Affairs has without explanation refused to grant permits to Gauri-Shank. The mountain, meanwhile, remains on the list of peaks open to climbing.
For now Gauri and Shankar have the peak once again just to themselves.