10/13/10 - A small group of American climbers has pulled off two major first ascents in the Changping Valley of Sichuan, China, completing the first ascent of a much-tried 18,346-foot mountain named Seerdengpu and new route on striking Celestial Peak. They also survived several harrowing epics.
Chad Kellogg and Dylan Johnson bagged Seerdengpu (the Yeti, or "Savage Peak") on their third attempt during this expedition, which was backed by a Mugs Stump Award and Lyman Spitzer Award from the AAC. Originally, they had hoped to try the 5,000-foot rock "nose" of the Yeti on Seerdengpu's north side, but stormy weather turned their attention to the mixed ground of the east face. (Three expeditions attempted the "nose" this year, and all were defeated by rockfall, with some injuries.) Kellogg and Johnson eventually decided to attempt the northeast ridge of the unclimbed peak, and on their first attempt, they found solid granite (up to 5.10) in the first 250 meters. After a snowstorm, they returned four days later and pushed the line up mixed climbing along the ridge and a gully system in poor weather.
"At 5,200 meters [17,060 feet], the gully terminated at a small col, and a series of complex gendarmes guarded the upper mountain," Johnson wrote in an email. "In the waning daylight, I led a steep gendarme, dry-tooling a thin crack. While trying to clear snow and find some gear, my tool ripped and sent me hurling off backward for my first alpine whipper."
Johnson was unharmed but shaken, and with no bivy gear, the pair decided to retreat. After a rest day in basecamp, they got a perfect forecast and returned up the 15-mile approach to the climb that afternoon. Unwilling to risk a new storm, they started climbing at 11:30 p.m. and reached their high point at dawn. Complex traversing (5.10 C2) got them past the gendarmes, and above they were able to simul-climb to the top. "The summit ridge offered spectacular cornice walking and easy mixed climbing, accompanied by giant raptors flying below," Johnson said. This was Kellogg's seventh summit in the Qionglai Mountains over several expeditions, and Johnson's third summit. They made it back to their high camp just before midnight, 34 hours after leaving basecamp the day before. They called the route Headwaters.
A few days afterward, Johnson, Kellogg, and John Dickey nearly completed the first ascent of a spectacular 16,686-foot spire near Seerdengpu. "Unfortunately, in the dark, after 600 meters of absolutely classic free climbing, I had to turn back some 25 meters from the summit, faced with steep, unprotectable arête climbing and no bolt kit," Johnson said. "On the descent, we destroyed our only remaining lead line."
Meanwhile, Toby Grohne and Jesse Huey were also in the valley, preparing for an attempt on the northwest face of 20,505-foot Siguniang, for which they too had received a Mugs Stump Award. As a "warm-up," the two climbed a long alpine ridge on Celestial Peak (aka Pomiu, 17,759 feet), with John Dickey filming and photographing. This beautiful peak was first climbed by a big wall on the southwest face, by an American expedition in 1983.
After an arduous four-hour bushwhack approach, the trio approached the northeast ridge and bivied by a pocket glacier on the north side at around 15,600 feet. After a cold night with no sleeping bags, they climbed onto the ridge with no bivy gear, hoping for a one-day ascent. "While anxiously realizing that we need to move out to get up and off this huge ridge, we take the time to pull ropes and re-lead pitches for the camera," Grohne wrote. "I have never done this at the crags, let alone on a 3,500-foot first ascent!"
They might have foregone the shots had they known what was coming. After a 5.10 face climbing pitch to reach the upper ridge, "We discovered the most striking knife-edge ridge that I have ever seen," Grohne said. "As a Wyoming climber, it reminded me of the east ridge of Wolf's Head, only steep and more like 40 pitches long Even though we trimul-climbed the whole thing (minus the crux pitch), we spent over 10 hours on the ridge."
The trio topped out at 7 p.m., completing the new route, the Forlorn Ridge, and the sixth ascent of the peak. They rappelled the east face to descend, returning to their high camp after 22 hours.
The adventures were not over, however. After moving up to advanced basecamp below Siguniang, Grohne, Huey, and friends were hanging out at camp when a 600-foot slab fell off the route they had planned to climb, the night before they began their attempt. Then, while bouldering at this high camp, at 15,000 feet, Huey took a 25-foot fall onto rocks and broke his back and wrist, and severely bruised several ribs. Fortunately, the team was able to help him down the mountain and out the long trek to the road for the eight-hour drive to the hospital in Chengdu. Huey is now home in the States and is expected to recover completely.
The climbers had traveled to China as part of the Elevation Project, an outreach program that included an effort to set up an alpine climbing school in Rilong, the town at the base of these mountains. Four Sisters Productions is making a feature-length documentary about the school and the expedition. You can read the climbers' blog and see many photos from the trip at Foursistersfilm.com. Dates of Ascents: September 2010
Sources: Dylan Johnson, Toby Grohne, John Dickey, Alison Watson, American Alpine Journal