Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Sichuan China

I first learned of big granite mountains in Sichuan province, western China in winter 2011. I was surfing my good friend Max's couch and living in Boulder, CO while I rehabbed by injured rotator cuff. I began to piece together an image of what it would take to climb there; lots of money. Travel expenses, peak fees, liason all amounted to way more than my meager budget afforded. Instead, I returned to Patagonia and lived on a shoestring budget for the next winter.
Just this last summer, while working in California, I listened to a message from Felix Parham, a climber I'd met my first season in Patagonia in 2009. Basically, "Wanna go to China? It's free!" I immediately got in touch with him and faxed my passport to the China contact to confirm my spot on the team. Out of nowhere my dream of climbing in Sichuan was revealed.

If you've never heard of Fred Beckey, you've probably never climbed. The guy is the definition of a legend. Living his life with a fervent dedication to dirtbaggery, Fred has opened more first ascents than anyone ever has and ever will. Stories of surviving on jam packets and crackers, or ketchup packets made into soup, chronicle his passion for big, aesthetic first ascents. Fred was born in 1923, making him 63 years older than me. I turned 27 this October on the China trip...

Over the last year, Fred had drummed up a good chunk of cash for an expedition to climb Celestial Peak, a dramatic rock pyramid in Sichuan. His younger brother Helme, a retired German opera singer and long-time climbing partner of Fred's, threw down most of the deniro. Adidas was on board to outfit us with new kicks and threads, and more cash. Innate Gear from Canada gave us more goodies to play with!

The team met in Santa Barbara, California to pack it all up.
Fred Beckey- Alpine Godfather -Seattle, WA
Bill Harz-"The Mayor"- Safety Expert -Carpenteria, CA
Cameron Kern- Bigwallrat -Flagstaff, AZ
Meagan Bond -Himalayan Expert, Fred's Girl -Seattle, WA
Felix Parham- Translator for Mr. Beckey -Flagstaff, AZ
Erik Harz- Resident Geology Expert-Santa Barbara, CA
Me-"Kid Kauffman"-My Van, USA/ El Chalten, Argentina

After chasing the night of Sept 24. along the rim of fire, we crossed the date-line, completely missed Sept. 25, and arrived in Chengdu, China on Sept. 26. There's 14 million (think Los Angeles) living in this polluted metropolis on the plains east of the great Himalayan range. It's a bit like the image from George Orwell's 1984. Clouds and smog mix, blocking the sun, and glowing at night.

After some serious recovery sleep, I wandered this shockingly strange city the next day. Scooters were everywhere zipping through traffic, disregarding traffic "laws". People on foot lined up to cross intersections; I was in the midst of this huge line of ants putting in a busy day's work.
Half the team accompanied Fred to the supermarket to get supplies for a month at basecamp.

We loaded a big red tour bus and left the city on the 29th. Leaving the plains, we drove west through long, dark tunnels through the mountains. Popping out, we were in the bottom of incredibly steep, v-shaped, river carved valleys. This area has been devastated by earthquake frequently and rock slides scarred the slopes. After a full day of honking along the windy routes, we stopped in Marshang, the capital of the ABO province. Prayer flags hung aloft. Many of the people here are Tibetan, darker skinned than most Chinese. As I walked the streets, everyone took notice. Foreigners are a rare sight here. "Hello!" "What's your name?" Some knew basic English, most just smiled.

The next day of bussing brought us over windy, snowy passes, through amazing mixed conifer forests, and finally to the little village of Rilong, built above the river and carved out of the mountain side.
The weather for our ride had been great, sunny and warm. As we spent the next few days in Rilong to acclimate, it began to rain. The food was good, but variety was low. We ate rice, with oily fried cabbage, peppers, and long beans. We ate chicken and pork, and drank Chinese beer. I tried rice wine but gagged and nearly lost it! It's sweet chemically fruity flavor still haunts me...
I celebrated my 27th birthday on October 2nd in Rilong. I was devastatingly sick for the day and mostly confined to my slummy hotel room, complete with squat toilet. A memorable birthday, no doubt!

Finally on October 5th under clearing skies, we escaped Rilong. Horses carried our gear to basecamp, 6 miles up the Changping Valley. On either side of the river were Mt Siguniang and Celestial Peak, with vertical relief reaching 8,000ft! We heard Jim Donini was about, and met him shortly. His camp was just further up the valley, and he already had a new route picked out and ready to go. The forecast showed 6 days of great weather coming! Cameron went to climb with Donini, while Erik, Felix, and I explored up the valley for unclimbed rock. The preceding storm had left our objective on Celestial totally snowy and out of condition so we hoped to find a good warm-up to acclimate.

From dense, squishy, rhododendron forest, we spied a nice-looking, dry, south face on an unclimbed peak of 5180m, about 17,000ft. We had been slogging up the opposite side of the valley, trying to get to a beautiful mountain; it was too snowy. We changed plans and over the next days, we established a high bivy under a nice boulder near the start of the route on Pk 5180.

On Oct 11th, we awoke before dawn and started climbing. I led 5.9 alpine rock, a bit wet here and there, but fun! I switch to boots and climbed through snow to the ridge, where a big finger of rock jutted skyward. Now we were in the sun and warmed up quickly. Felix started leading on the ridge, then traversed off to find a better passage. We moved our route onto the South face proper, and found great rock where we simul-climbed for 100 meters. I led the next two pitches, the best sustained climbing on the route. Again we gained the ridge and nice cracks, and later found a little nest to brew up water and eat some. The last pitch was looser rock with snow, but still protected OK. On the summit ridge it was 5pm, and a sense of urgency compelled us down. I quickly tagged the summit, a small boulder perched high over the void, then down-climbed back to the anchor. I had the realization just how remote we were, deep in these giant mountains of a far-away land. It was a wonderful sensation! The descent was mellow, mostly moderate snow slopes that went quickly. We rappelled twice as darkness fell to get back into the basin where our little rock cave awaited. Cooking dinner and re-hydrating was all we could do before settling in for the night. Stars shone vividly against the dark skyline of the peaks across the valley. Our climb had been superb, and things went smoother than usual in the alpine realm. Psyche was high! We turned in with smiles...

The weather had been for the week, but after returning to BC it snowed for nearly two weeks. While we were out, Fred had made it to BC riding a horse! It was great to see him in the mountains, but it was a harsh environment for his age! Whenever it was good enough to go out, I hiked about, but couldn't see much. It was a tough time; after so much effort I was in great position, but couldn't climb what we came for. Eventually we all accepted we would not climb anything else. It was quite sad for me, but I was thankful for the climb we had.

We named the mountain Joey Shan after a California friend who lost her battle with cancer while we were climbing. She was an incredible soul and will be missed by those who knew her strong spirit.
Jianyfonya Dreaming 
IV 1500' 5.9, 
Oct 11, 2013
FA of "Joey Shan" 5180 meters

Our little team was proud of the Cali roots we came from, a progressive culture that has pervaded the world, even a country so remarkably different as China. I flew the state flag with the great grizzly bear at basecamp. To our great surprise "Jianyfonya" was the translation in Mandarin Chinese.

A Taoist temple in Chengdu

Motor boats for rent in Chengdu

Fred guards our gear in Chengdu

Fred and I take a break during the long drive to Rilong
Cabbage field en route to Rilong
Not a swastika! this is a Buddhist religious symbol...
The town of Rilong from the roof of our hotel
Fred studies the map with Meagan
A buddhist stupa in the park
Our Liason Officer and Spiritual Advisor, Pan
Mt Siguniang 6250m (20,550ft)
A view of Celstial Peak (5417m) from Wolong Pass

Loading up to leave town
Horsemen with our gear under Siguniang
Siguniang high over the Changping Valley
Celestial Peak 
Basecamp is at the lower right corner at 12,000ft
the summit is 17,772, do the math, its big!

 Finally, the first rays of sun clear Siguniang and hits camp

Bill Harz, Erik Harz, Cameron Kern, Felix Parham
Well psyched!
Erik crossing under Celestial
The Changping Valley
Barbarian Peak at the head of the valley

   Wildlife in the upper Changping

 Erik hiking in the squishy forest
Felix approaching the mountains
A view of what we called "Joey Shan"
 5180m, ca.17,000ft
taken two days after the first ascent on Oct. 11, 2013
The SW ridge of Joey Shan
Our route gained the foreground ridge at the big gendarme, middle of the photo
then traversed onto the (right) south face
before regaining the ridge near the summit (the right-most tower)
Looking at our approach route to Joey Shan
the big gendarme is visible on the SW ridge
 Erik pointing out some goodness from our bivy cave

Our mountain home, the cave

 The bivy
The big gendarme where we hit the SW ridge proper
Felix climbing good rock in the sun on the SW ridge
around pitch 3 just after the big gendarme
Felix traversing off the ridge to the south face
Felix on the south face after the traverse
 with Siguniang behind

 Erik on the excellent crux pitch 8!
felt like 5.10 but was probably 5.9 with a pack and altitude
Felix photo
Erik in the fun chimney pitch 9
Felix photo
Erik and I pause on the upper ridge
Felix on the last pitch near the summit
Erik and Felix descending from the summit
You can just see Celestial poking out in the sun on the left
Siguniang at dusk
Walking down the super steep slope back into the Changping Valley
Getting the spray-down from Fred back at BC
Meagan and Fred hiking at BC
It snowed for nearly two weeks after our climb

The north face of Celestial after the storm

Felix and Erik
Lots of tent time
Erik and I out for a stroll
Siguniang North Face
 ca. 5000ft vertical
attempted by Donini, Tackle, Schmitz, Kanzler in '86??
  the direct line remains unclimbed
A nice block near camp
Posing down with our Chinese friends
Back in Rilong
Erik and a true minivan
Painting on a Taoist temple in Chengdu
Taoist wood carving of a monkey
Each year is marked by an animal in a twelve year-cycle