72 pitch First Ascent in the Changping Valley, China
Chad Kellogg and I, funded in part by a Lyman Spitzer Award from the American Alpine Club, completed the first ascent of the Southwest Ridge of Siguniang (VI 5.11 A2 M5 AI3+), 72 pitches. 9,200’ from base camp, in southwestern China over ten days, September 21-30, 2008.
The route began with 2,500’ of steep rainforest weaving through cliff bands to the base of a 2000’ granite wall at 14,200’. The wall was climbed by a direct line through vertical crack systems with free climbing up to 5.11 and much A2 complicated by grass and moss in the cracks. We made three bivis on the wall on small sloping ledges and one tight alcove. The weather for ascent was good with the exception of a lightning and sleet storm on the second night which made us claustrophobic from being wrapped in the limp tent body on our small ledge.
We topped out the bigwall portion after 17 pitches in the middle of the fourth day. Here we were able to find water at 16,500’ and it was greastly needed since we had planned on climbing the wall in two days. From this point onward the route changed to remarkable alpine ridge climbing, as the weather deteriorated to white out, fog and snow flurries for the remainder of the climb. The rest of day four and all of day five was spent navigating the crest that weaved in-and-out between dozens of gendarmes. This rock ridge, which we dubbed "The Rake," (after a similar peak in our local Cascade Mountains) ended at camp 5, just before a notch below the upper mountain at 16,800’. Planning to descend the gulley south of the notch we cached our rock shoes, half the rack and one rope in dry bags behind a flake.
Throughout day 6 the weather worsened to sleet with near zero visibility as we ascended through the notch and up a 500’ verglassed rock step. The notch itself proved to be the crux of "The Rake" with several outrageously slender gendarmes and much snow covered rock. We chopped camp 6 into the hanging glacier at 17,400’ above the rock step. The evening cleared for a half an hour and provided stunning views of "The Rake" and the lower walls to the north and south. The upper mountain however remained socked in.
Day 7 included the mixed climbing crux of the route; two pitches of snowy rock (M5) were climbed to gain the crest again above the seracs on the north side of the ridge. The weather continued with snow flurries and zero visibility. We enjoyed absolutely classic alpine ridge climbing for the second half of the day. Hundreds of meters of happy cowboys (riding the crest like a bull) on both snow and rock, hooking tools on the crest, and navigating rocks and cornices. Camp seven, on a glacial shelf at 18,300’ offered the first flat ground we’d set foot on since base camp.
On the morning of day 8 (despite being three days behind schedule) we cached our camp and set off for the summit amid yet another whiteout. We were quite thankful the ridge was so well defined, as we could climb in poor weather and stay on route. Snow and ice runnels bisecting the upper rock steps led to a happy cowboy finale followed by a mixed traverse on the south face. By mid-afternoon we reached the summit seracs. A short vertical ice pitch provided access to the upper snow slopes. We traversed north under the false summit, reaching the rimed summit at 4:35pm. We began our descent promptly encouraged by the darkening wall of hate boiling and flashing to the west. Just before dark we reached the happy cowboy as the lightning storm worsened and drew close, striking the ridge several times directly above our heads. We took refuge on the mixed traverse south of the crest and waited for the lightening to subside. One hour later we dashed across the happy cowboy and continued rappelling towards our high camp cache. At 11:00pm at 19,000’ in stormy weather, we could not find the gulley leading down to the high camp cache. We spend the night climbing and down climbing the 60 degree snow trying to stay warm. At dawn, both encrusted in rime ourselves, the clouds parted and we saw the route down to high camp.
Delighted to find our cache and finally get some improving weather, we gathered our things and started to rappel the south face from a point directly below our high camp. Nine days into our seven day supply, reversing the ridge to the cache to descend the gulley south of the notch was out of the question. The climbing that separated us from our cache was much more difficult and time consuming than we had expected. After 25-30 rappels with our skinny alpine rack we touched down on the glacier at 15,600’ with no pins, four stoppers, three cams, no runners and about 15’ of webbing remaining.
Anxious to avoid another night in our soggy down bags we opted to descend to base camp that night. At 10:30pm, in the pouring rain, we found ourselves hopelessly lost in the brush at 14,200’. Without flat ground we built a crude stone ledge in the talus, pitched the tent and settled in for a final, miserable night. On top of seven days of climbing, 42 hours had passed since our last bivi, 52 since our last meal.
The following day, our tenth day, we hiked down to the Changping Valley, getting cliffed out in several locations and having to cross a gorge at 13,600’. The yak trail, as we saw from below, is on the north side of the valley, along the base of the walls. We reached base camp that afternoon at 2:30pm.
Dylan lost over 30 pounds during the climb, Chad over 20. The route followed one rest day after a six-day acclimatization climb, a second ascent of a nearby peak by a 3000’ rock climb (5.8, 12 pitches) topping out at 19,000.’ In the 6 week trip, spanning a six-day weather window, 16 of 17 consecutive days were spent climbing.
We were the only foreign expedition in the region. The tourism industry in Sichuan is reeling from the devastating earthquake in May and the political crisis in Tibet. Traveling there is safe and enjoyable we highly recommend it.