Last year a mountaineering team applied for a permit from the Sichuan Mountaineering Association (SMA) to attempt an unclimbed peak in the Qionglai Mountains, Sichuan Province, an area in southwest China that includes eastern Tibet. The SMA is the local branch of the Chinese Mountaineering Association (CMA), and is the governing body for mountaineering in the province. With easier access, more technical routes and more unclimbed mountains than Tibet itself, Sichuan sees thousands of climbers, including guided clients, every year. But without a permit, we can’t legally climb any peak over 11,500 feet here, and a new regulation states that unpermitted first ascents won’t be counted as first ascents.
Upon receiving its permit, the team summitted the unclimbed and unnamed 17,500-foot mountain, and a few days later in November posted the first-ascent certificate issued by the SMA. They also posted a photo of the team headed toward the summit. Visible in the image was a three-foot-high Mani, or Tibetan, prayer stone. For most travelers and climbers in Sichuan and Tibet, Mani stones are familiar, found atop many summits. The discovery of the Mani stone on the summit reminded me of the finale in the 1991 movie Cerro Torre: Scream of Stone by Werner Herzog, where two climbers compete for the peak’s first ascent only to find a photo of Mae West on the summit.
If a Mani stone was on the summit, placed by a devout local Tibetan an unknown time ago, how could the climbers claim a first ascent, and why was the earlier ascent ignored?
The issue quickly became a hot topic within the Chinese climbing community, some of whom joked that the Mani stone must have been a natural feature. The debate heated up to the point that the SMA stepped in and issued a formal definition of first ascents. They stated that because climbing is a modern sport, and to promote mountaineering, only permitted first ascents would be recognized. According to the SMA, a first ascent now has to be confirmed by officials. If no permit, no confirmation, no recognition.
If they want to climb, then they will climb, and they believe that the best part of a first ascent is the joy of standing on a summit for the first time in human history. Sound familiar?
In the broader community, free-spirited Chinese climbers don’t really care about official opinions. For them, if you are the first to succeed on a climb, you got the first ascent, regardless of whether you had a permit. The back story is that applying for a climbing permit in China is complicated and expensive. The local mountaineering association has given no set cost to register for unclimbed peaks, meaning they can set their prices at will. If you have a good relationship with the association, the price can be a few hundred dollars. If you have no relationship with them, an unclimbed peak could cost tens of thousands of dollars.
The consequences for climbing without a permit can be grave: Most insurance will not cover illegal acts. Get in an accident, and your family will have to pay for the rescue. This has happened.
Mainstream media also ignores climbs done without permits, regarding them as common criminal offenses, and in general considers climbers selfish risk-takers who are ignorant of the world. The media shapes the public’s image, and climbers don’t make a positive impression in current China.
Yan Dongdong was a climber and writer who translated several books on mountaineering into Chinese. In 2009 he and Zhou Peng climbed a new route on Yaomei Feng, one of the four summits of Mt. Sigunian, in fast, alpine style. Standing 20,505 feet, Yaomei Feng is the second-highest mountain in Sichuan, and Dongdong’s ascent, the first made in such style by a Chinese climber, made him famous. Dongdong ascended dozens of unclimbed peaks and broadened the horizons of Chinese climbers before he died at age 28 while descending an unclimbed peak in Xinjiang in 2012.
Dongdong was an idealist and used his platform to shine a light on the issues within China’s mountaineering bureaucracy. In 2009 he wrote that the local mountaineering association “keeps cracking down on illegal climbers, while refusing to lower the high standard of climbing licenses,” and had “strangled the mountaineering economy in many places, as well as the rising mountaineering culture in China.”
Chinese climbers cherish the memory of Dongdong, partly for his climbing style and achievements, but mostly because he sought to live as freely as possible in a country where life is stressful. No one else has done anything like this in Chinese climbing circles, but he represented a kind of hope.
This hope is not only about a more free lifestyle, but perhaps, for climbing in China. Dongdong’s free spirit continues to influence Chinese climbers. If they want to climb, then they will climb, and they believe that the best part of a first ascent is the joy of standing on a summit for the first time in human history. Sound familiar?
Yet they also may care about recognition. If we think of climbing as art, consider that a film, a painting, or a work of music can only be recognized as “great” if it was created with permission—otherwise no one ever sees or hears it.
Just imagine someone succeeding on an unclimbed peak or route without a permit. A few days or years later another team makes a legal ascent of the same climb. The true pioneers will be lost to history, while the climbers who repeated the climb are recorded and celebrated for the first ascent.
Hopefully this article will have climbers around the world understanding what is happening in China.
The SMA defined first ascents to impose order on what they perceived as disorder. However, their regulations have instead created chaos, and the climbing community considers it a declaration of war. In Sichuan there will now be legal first ascents, and there will be true first ascents.