China was a unique and enriching experience. It has definitely lit a fire within me to continue exploring new cultures, meeting interesting people along the way, and to try to allow my technical and mental limits to evolve while climbing in the mountains.
We began our trip in mid October knowing that the autumn, or post monsoon, was a good time to climb in the Daxue Shan. The snow would be lean, the ice (hopefully) would be getting better every day and the temps would not be as bitter cold as later in the season. The weather is always a roll of the dice on trips like this one but after researching the history and trends within the area, we were crossing our fingers for a few stable climbing “windows”.
Our expedition consisted of 5 people total. Chris Gibisch and I would be climbing together, and our good friend Bob Garrety would join us for the experience; trekking, and climbing on subsidiary peaks during our acclimatization period. Bob is an amazing dude with super positive energy and an easy going attitude about everything. Our group dynamic was as relaxed as it gets.
The Sichuan Mountaineering Association had created a regulation requiring all foreign expeditions to be accompanied by at least two Chinese speaking personnel. This fairly new regulation came on the coat tails of the tragic loss of Jonny Copp, Wade Johnson and Micha Dash during their attempt of a new route on Mt Edgar (right behind the mountain we had a permit to attempt). Because of this, our Liason Officer, Papaya, and our cook and base camp attendant, Mr. Jong became the fourth and fifth members of our group.
Papaya and Jong are employees of Sichuan Earth Expedition, a company owned by the well known Zhang brothers, Jiyue and Shaohong. For more than 30 years, Jiyue and Shaohong have been helping climbers and trekkers get in an out of the mountains by arranging permits, transport and organizing local horses and/or porters. In fact, Shaohong made his first big trip as a guide, cook and base camp attendant for our good friends, Gray and Eloise Thompson in ’93 during Gray’s expedition to complete the first ascent of Mt Lamoshe in a nearby range.
The connection with Gray, coupled with learning that they were the same company Jonny, Wade and Micha had used for permits and as their L.O. (Shoahong and Jiyue were two of the first on the search for the missing climbers), I felt an immediate kinship with these two guys and knew our hassles would be minimal. Consummate professionals, their help and attitude toward our trip made it easy to become fast friends.
Papaya, our L.O for the trip, was a 5′.2″ “spit fire” that spoke fluent Japanese and English, on top of her native Chinese. Although she had taken many trekking trips with Japanese clients, this would be her first time on a climbing expedition and her longest trip in the mountains. Her translation and negotiating skills made everything proceed smoothly, even when our bus driver decided to go “on strike” during the trip to the village of Laouyling.
Late in the drive from the Sichuan capital, Chengdu, to Laouyling, well after dark and after many hours of rough roads and crazy passes, our driver decided he was “over it”. He pulled off to the side of the road in Kangding (the “gate-way to Tibet”) and started demanding more money. It was comical that after 12 hours of driving, he wasn’t going to take us another 20 minutes up the hill to our destination.
Papaya wasn’t having it. After a heated exchange with the driver, a “Chinese fire drill” to extract our gear out of the back seats of the bus was all we could do. She was not about to be ordered to do anything by this guy and, after how good she had been to us already, we immediately gained additional respect for her. She was all up on it. Within minutes of the bus driver taking off, she had a rig on it’s way to pick up Mr. Jong with our stuff and had us on our way to the village.
There we were met by Jiyue’s long time friend, Doji, a Tibetan Buddhist who had provided horses and horseman to climbers and trekkers for the last 3 decades. Doji and his family took us into their home and made us a delicious meal of traditional Tibetan food. The hospitality floored us. Yak butter tea and laughs had us thankful for the huge experience the previous 4 days had provided.
A smoky room, complete with yak meat (hanging from the ceiling to dry), Doji quietly repeating “Oṃ maṇi padme hūṃ” in front of a wood stove while counting each of his 108 beads, and our long travel had us all finally relaxing, feeling like we were starting to fit within the rhythm of this new world around us.
In the morning, we loaded up food, tents and gear for a month on Doji’s horses and walked up a valley in the light rain toward towering giants we had yet to see. The cloud level was low and it was early that we were above base and within it’s blanketing white. Rain gave way to light snow as we walked to the sound of the horseman’s whistles past bridges of logs and prayer flags spanning a braided river. Stopping in a flat saddle of sorts, we made camp at around 11,500′ just before dark.
It was to be a two day trip to BC but when we woke to a foot of new snow and the news that half of the horses had make a break for home, it was decided that we would wait a day to see what the weather had in store. The horses were rounded up and we took the day as an opportunity to deal with the dull headaches that altitude and an uncomfortable lack of coffee had caused.
While loading up the horses for our second day of walking, we all took turns playing “blocker” to make sure that none could make a break for it. One of the horses was charged with the task of carrying two large propane tanks, one of which had a valve that was apparently not completely tightened. A loud hiss startled us as the horse ran at full speed with white propane gas spewing into the frigid air. My amusement and shock turned into worry when I saw how much of our precious fuel was leaking while the horseman was running after the now VERY freaked out animal. He managed to run it down and to twist the valve shut without too much damage done. Needless to say, when the last horse was loaded and we started uphill, all were relieved to again be making progress toward BC.
As we were finally cresting the hanging valley that would be home for the next month, the clouds started to part and we had our first views of the mountains we had come for. Right above camp were three beautiful peaks, E. Gongga (or mini Gongga), Jiazi Feng and Ri Wu Qie Feng (aka Mt Grosvenor). Mt Grosvenor, at 6376m, was steep, pyramidal and proud. It’s West face looked “notably exciting”.
We immediately went to work acclimatizing and establishing a high camp for the ability to sleep at altitude to prepare us further. When a narrow weather window close to the half way point of our trip presented, we jumped at our chance and were fortunate enough to climb a new route on the West face of Mt Grosvenor (3rd ascent of the peak) in 4 days round trip.
We had Chinese and Russian neighbors that kept our time in BC social. It’s a Sichuan tradition to eat a group “hot pot” at least once a month. All of the traditional Sichuan food was amazing and very spicy but a hot pot is something that absolutely MUST be experienced.
Months earlier while doing research and looking at photos, we speculated at the possibility of the line we climbed but knew from experience that there was no way to tell from the photo whether or not it was possible. We would have to get to the wall to find out. I remember looking at the line as one of the biggest unclimbed routes on the face. It looked potentially quite difficult and, honestly, I had very little expectation that this would be, in fact, something we would be able to attempt with any confidence toward success. After the fact, I now feel privleged to not only have this line turn out to be possible but, to also climb it, well….. it felt like a XC flight where the next thermal was always there.
Our route was perspective changing, requiring us to dig into the deepest resources within. Our second night on the face, close to the summit, was spent sitting on a small seats we had chopped in the ice, laughing and talking shit to keep us warm. Tethered tight to the wall, the altitude kicked our asses and the dry, cold wind howling off the Tibetan plateau was fierce but, on the up side, at least the stars were out. I can’t overemphasize how lucky we were to have this 2.5 day span of good weather.
After summitting the next day, we raced a storm down the NE ridge. Just as I threw a leg over the knife edge ridge to start rappelling down the east face, the fast moving storm overtook the mountain. Timing couldn’t have been better as Chris and I were almost immediately in the lee and able to rappel most of the day out of the wind. We had to camp in 100k winds that night but at least we could lay down for the first time in 3 days. The tent poles almost broke but actually being in the tent was luxury.
We woke to sunny skies and strong wind, brewed up, and started the long journey back to BC. 800′ of rappelling down the col between Jiazi and Grosvenor, down climbing through a couple of short ice falls and a purgatory of snow covered moraine found us stumbling back to our tents around 5pm. Our route was over but the personal growth and re-defined perspective will last, burned into Chris and I both.
Our time after the route was spent hiking, taking photos of future objectives and waiting for another window of weather that would never come. I also had unfortunately cold damaged my toes and was having to be careful about not allowing them to get cold again. Actually, it was more likely a problem with circulation than cold I think. Note to self, when climbing into a sitting bivi, COMPLETELY unlace your boots before stepping into the sleeping bag. It was hard enough with my crampons off to hang on the anchor and get my sleeping bag up around me that I had forgotten to unlace the bottom section of my boots. I think this was the main culprit to my numb and swollen toes (took over a month to come back).
When time ran out, a quick 6 hour walk out to Doji’s had us quickly driving to the hot springs in town. Soaking up the moment, reliving the experience and talk about future trips and routes, our trip had and continued to exceed our expectations. For us, it was a profound trip which has, as I said, fueled a burning desire for more. The suffering is gone and only the way this trip has changed me remains. Chris and I are anxious for the next opportunity and it’s because of our best attribute as an alpinists that the hard work and suffering to make it happen is gone. Best attribute as an alpinist? Easy….. a short memory;-)